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Navigating the Holidays with a Family Member Living with Dementia

December 19, 2022

By Cynthia Phon, LCSW, Director, House of Welcome Adult Day Services

The holiday season is upon us. While it can bring joy, it also can be stressful: particularly when caring for a family member who is living with dementia. Following are some tips to consider as you plan your holiday celebrations.

  • Maintain your regular routine. When planning holiday celebrations, try to stick to your daily schedule as much as possible. This preserves the familiarity of your daily routine for your family member.
  • Be sure those with whom you are celebrating are aware of the changes in your family member. Don’t assume others understand how your family member has changed. A phone call or a note ahead of time can help. Help guests understand that someone living with dementia may not always know what is expected and may get confused. Give specific examples of what people can expect and what they can do and say. For example:
    • “Mitch may not know your name, but he loves to talk about traveling.”
    • “Pat enjoys looking at the family photo albums and talking about past celebrations.”
    • “Juanita doesn’t speak much, but we always make sure to include her in the conversation.”
  • Include your family member in holiday events but recognize that celebrations may need to be modified. Large groups with a lot of activity and noise can be overstimulating for someone living with dementia. Consider small gatherings in calm, quiet settings. If your loved one gets tired or confused in the evening, consider getting together for a holiday brunch or afternoon tea.
  • If you usually host holiday gatherings, consider asking someone else to do so. This lets you focus on the celebration instead of the detailed preparations. Also, if needed, you and your family member can leave early without disrupting the celebration.
  • Include your family member in holiday preparations. The holidays are often defined by traditions. People living with dementia may not be able to participate in the same ways they used to. Consider having your family member take on a “helper” role so they can continue to be part of the process. Perhaps they can add ingredients and stir cookie dough, chop vegetables, set the table, help choose decorations, or put stamps on envelopes.
  • Try to find some time for yourself during the holidays. If friends or family ask if there’s anything they can do, take them up on it! Ask for what would be most helpful to you. Maybe someone could bring over a home cooked meal or take your loved one out to lunch so you can get a break.