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Holidays with Dementia

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

By Oran Aviv

The holiday season is a time for coming together with family and friends, but for older loved ones or family members who are living with dementia, holiday gatherings can sometimes be overwhelming or difficult to manage.

However, with some careful planning and consideration, it is possible to make holiday gatherings more enjoyable and comfortable for everyone,

Holiday Tips - Plan Ahead

It is important to have a family plan in place ahead of the event, as well as make sure the event location is suitable. Check the family gathering location and have a plan to allow an older family member to either stay, rest, or leave.

Social interaction can be beneficial for older people and spending time with the family can be very positive and help an older person feel less isolated. However, being at a family gathering may also be overwhelming Trying to concentrate for long periods of time, can totally deplete someone of energy, especially for an older family member who is living with dementia.

It can be helpful to provide a quiet space where the family member can retreat to escape the noise and stimulation, This is a place where they can rest and recharge.

Being in a room with a lot of people talking at once can make it difficult for for an older person, especially if living with dementia, to follow the conversation or understand what is being said. In such situations, it can be helpful to provide a separate space where the older person can visit with friends and family on a one-on-one basis.

For some older people, a family gathering may be too overwhelming, and they may want to leave after a short time. There needs to be an option in place for someone to bring this person home.

If you feel that your loved one may not feel comfortable with so many people, you might want to opt for a smaller celebration at home instead.

Holiday Tips - Accessibility

Besides checking that there is a room available at the family gathering where a loved one can relax if needed, also check for comfort and accessibility,

Some of the things you might want to check for:

  • Is there easy access for someone with disabilities?

  • Are there stairs or is there access for a wheelchair?

  • Is there easy access to sit and leave the table? (This is especially important if someone is in a wheelchair.)

  • Does the chair have arms to make it easier to sit down and get up.

  • Is the toilet accessible?

As we get older, we often experience sensory changes. For many older people sounds or background music can make it very difficult to understand conversation. This can cause an older person to withdraw. Ensure that there is no background noise that could interfere with your conversation, such as holiday music, TV or radio, loud appliances, or toy trains. This will help you have a clear and productive conversation with your family member.

When you are talking to an older person who may have hearing difficulties, make sure to position yourself close to them and maintain eye contact. This will help them better see and hear you and will make it easier for them to understand what you are saying.

Additionally, be sure to speak slowly and clearly, using short sentences to make it easier for the person to understand. This will help ensure that the older person can follow along with the conversation,

You can learn more about sensory changes in older adults and how you can help i nour blog Dementia and Sensory Changes

Holiday Tips – Designated Carer

It is important for there to be a designated person who is responsible for ensuring that the older family member feels comfortable and safe during holiday gatherings. This person may be a professional caregiver or a family member who is familiar with the older person's behavior patterns and needs.

The person in charge needs to be responsible for:

  • Making sure the family member always feels safe

  • Helping with feeding, if necessary

  • Checking if the family member needs a rest

  • Taking the family member home if they are tired or upset

  • Helping “translate” for the family member when there is too much noise for them to understand conversations

  • Noticing the family member’s body language and behavioral cues so they can help them before they become too anxious or upset.

By providing this level of support and care, the designated person can help make the holiday gathering a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

Holiday Tips – Prepare the Family

Prepare family and friends before the family gathering.

Make sure family, friends and children are aware of your family member’s disabilities so they will not be surprised and will know how to react. This may include explaining that the family member:

  • May have declined since they last saw them

  • May tire easily and need a break

  • May have difficulty hearing

  • May have difficulty eating

  • May repeat themselves

  • May not recognize who you are

  • May get agitated

Explain to family and friends that they should introduce themselves and not put the older person in the embarrassing situation of not remembering who they are.

Instruct the guests ahead of time to talk slowly and clearly with the older person and give them time to answer. Often older people and people who are living with dementia, need more time to process what has been said and time to form their response.

There are many children’s book available that explain about dementia. I highly recommend My Grandma Has Dementia

By Alex Winstanley & illustrated by Adam Walker-Parker

And Alex Winstanley’s What are Lewy Bodies?

Illustrated by Yogesh Mahajan

These books, written for children, can also be helpful to adults. The simple and clear explanations they provide can be useful for people of all ages to better understand dementia.

Holiday Tips – Acknowledge Stress

Include your family member in the holiday spirit as well as in the holiday stress.

As cognition declines, emotional recognition often increases, so your family member may be more sensitive to the emotions and experiences of those around them. This can cause anxiety if they don’t know the reason for the emotional changes they feel in those close to them.

Consider talking to your family member about the holiday preparations and how everyone is feeling. You could say something like, "Hey, have you noticed that things are getting a bit crazy lately? We're all busy getting ready for the holiday."

This can be a good opportunity to reminisce and ask your family member about their own experiences preparing for the holidays in the past. If they are not able to communicate verbally, you can still share stories and photos with them to help them feel connected.

Holiday Tips – Inclusion

Involving your loved one in the holiday preparations can be a great way to keep them engaged and active. Helping with meal preparation, setting the table, and preparing holiday cards and gifts can provide a sense of purpose and accomplishment for your loved one.

As you prepare the holiday meals, ask your loved one about their favorite dishes and recipes. Acknowledge their past contributions to holiday meals and reminisce about memories from previous celebrations. This can provide a chance for your loved one to share their knowledge and experiences.

Allow an older person to reminisce about past holidays by asking them how their parents and grandparents celebrated the holidays, and what they remember most about those celebrations.

Singing holiday songs and prayers together can also be a fun and nostalgic activity that can help everyone feel the holiday spirit.

You can also dig out those old photos and reminisce together about past holidays.

Holiday Tips – Assign a Role

In Naomi Feil's Validation Method, assigning a role to an older person can be a way to help them feel their identity, importance, and usefulness.

By giving a loved one a specific task to perform at the family gathering, such as welcoming guests or serving snacks and drinks, you can help them feel valued and respected. This can be especially beneficial for older adults who may be experiencing confusion or memory loss, as it can give them a sense of purpose and meaning.

It's important to choose a role that is appropriate for the person's abilities and interests. For example, if they were previously responsible for preparing the holiday meals, they may enjoy overseeing setting the table or organizing the silverware. If they always enjoyed company, they may enjoy being the designated greeter who welcomes the guest to the gathering.

By giving a role that is meaningful and satisfying, you can help an older person feel useful and engaged at the family gathering.

In addition, you can also let guests know that the older person is in charge of a specific task and encourage them to ask for their help or advice. For example, they can be in charge to showing the guests where to put their coats. This can help the older person feel useful and respected, and can also provide a sense of connection and interaction with the other guests.

Overall, assigning a role to an older person at the family gathering can be a great way to help them feel valued and included in the celebration.

In Summary to have a holiday gathering where everyone will enjoy themselves you must:

  • Check accessibility and have a plan

  • Include your loved one in holiday preparation

  • Enjoy your celebration, assist if needed, know when it’s time to goIn these

Nancy and I discuss holiday tips in these 2 clips.


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