Celebrating the holidays when a loved one has dementia

Celebrating the holidays can involve a whirlwind of shopping, decorating, baking, meal preparation and visits with family and friends. It can be overwhelming and exhausting for anyone—but just imagine navigating it all when you’re living with dementia!

That doesn’t mean the holidays can’t be a great time to have meaningful and purposeful time with our loved ones with dementia, says Merritt Williams King, certified therapeutic recreational specialist at Prisma Health Senior Care, a PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) program. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Involve your loved one in preparations wherever you can. Perhaps they can put stamps on holiday cards, decorate cookies or help with wrapping gifts. Simple craft projects, such as the one pictured (made by a PACE participant), can be great for helping your loved one connect with grandkids.
A simple craft idea that those with dementia can do with family
  • Seniors love to reminisce. King suggests asking your loved one about what Christmas was like when they were a child. Or consider having a family sing-a-long. Your loved one may be struggling with short term memory, but still remember all the words to the songs he or she grew up enjoying.
  • Talk to family members before any get-togethers and let them know how their loved one is doing. If family members have not seen their loved one for a while, King said, make sure they know there may have been changes since the last visit. In some cases, they may need to “introduce” themselves when saying hello. Kids in particular need to know that unusual behaviors from their family member, such as anger, are not personal but rather a part of the disease.
  • Keep a basket of holiday cards, old and new, by a favorite chair for your loved one to enjoy.
  • When it comes to giving gifts, King recommends selecting sensory stimulation gifts such as a family photo album, classic movies or simple activity books (crossword puzzle, word search and adult coloring books are all good choices).
  • Instead of one big gathering, break get-togethers into smaller groups spread over a few days. If you can’t avoid a large party, provide your loved one with a quiet area away from the crowd where guests can take turns spending quality time in a calmer setting.
  • Make the most of your loved one’s best time of day. If right after lunch is typically the best time for company, schedule visits accordingly. Avoid evening hours, which are typically more challenging for those with dementia. Don’t be sad if your loved one doesn’t remember seeing you. The “emotional memory” of time spent with someone who cares will give them a heightened sense of well-being for some time after you’re gone.
  • Spend some time outdoors. King suggests a neighborhood stroll to take in the holiday lights.
  • If your loved one is in assisted living and it’s difficult for them to leave, consider taking the holiday dinner to them. Many places have a private dining space for families.
  • Considering simplifying. Perhaps this is the year to cut back on outside commitments and social engagements, giving yourself more time to focus on your loved one with dementia. While the holidays may not be the same, the moments you share will still provide a great source of joy and comfort for you both.

Kathleen Heins is community engagement coordinator with Prisma Health Senior Care. To learn more about Prisma Health Senior Care, click  here.

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