Brain Health: How to Navigate Holidays When Your Loved One Has Dementia

By Maryanne Edmundson, Ph.D., L.P.

Holidays can be stressful for anyone. When a loved one has dementia, families are often faced with new challenges for the holiday season. You may want to hold on to traditions, yet find it daunting to schedule family festivities while balancing your caregiver role. Here are several points to consider for holiday planning when your loved one has dementia.

Caregivers, be sure to care for yourselves. One person can only do so much. If you usually make all the holiday plans, ask family and friends to help out. You might ask them to plan or host get-togethers, visit with your loved one while you pick up gifts, or have potluck holiday meals. Focus on the joy of the season and let go of any overwhelming planning and activities. Consider arranging temporary in-home care to ensure you have post-festivities relaxation time.

Include the person with dementia in the planning process. With dementia, people lose their ability to complete tasks without help. As a result, they can feel helpless and left out, especially during the holiday season. Talk through holiday planning together – this can help you know what events are most important to your loved one and, thus, which should get the most attention and energy. Find ways your loved one can safely and enjoyably help with the preparations. Even if they can no longer shop for gifts, they may be able to wrap presents. If they used to make the holiday meal, perhaps plan an event where the family prepares a simple meal together. There may be in-home decorating they can safely do. Be creative!

Communicate with family and friends. Let anyone sharing your holiday know ahead of time about your loved one’s dementia and how it may affect holiday planning and your loved one’s behavior. Family and friends can help just by understanding that you may need to alter plans at short notice. Prepare them for your loved one’s behavior changes (such as repeating themselves, sometimes not recognizing family or tending to become easily upset in certain circumstances) and what to do when these behaviors come up. Although it is important to inform others of your loved one’s changes, it is equally important for them to treat your loved one like the person they were. It can be tempting to talk only about the dementia, but this can make a person feel as though the dementia is all they are.

Change traditional gatherings as needed. This can be especially difficult, because following traditions can make you feel comfortable and connected to your family, religious community and the past. At the same time, dementia can make it hard for a person to participate in all traditional events. Consider changing aspects of traditions in little ways while trying to preserve what makes the custom important. For example, some people with dementia experience “sundowning,” where they become more confused or upset near the end of the day, which could make it hard to enjoy a traditional holiday dinner. Instead, you could have a family brunch.

Plan festivities with your loved one’s specific needs in mind. People with dementia may become confused or upset when there are dramatic changes to their surroundings or routine, so centering family gatherings around their home or local area and keeping their usual routine as consistent as possible can improve their ability to participate. Some people with dementia have a hard time being around crowds for long stretches, so consider having several small gatherings on different days rather than one large event. Many tire easily and need rest breaks or a quiet space where they can have time away from the crowd. Some have trouble with judgment and controlling impulses, so consider having gatherings that are alcohol-free without gifts that may be dangerous (like power tools) or artificial food decorations that could be mistakenly eaten. Some have difficulty remembering recent events yet clearly recall the long ago past. In this case, holiday events could involve sharing old stories and singing well-known carols.

If you have further questions about how to navigate holiday events with your loved one who has dementia, consult with your primary doctor, home health agency or local neuropsychologist.

Dr. Maryanne Edmundson, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041, or by visiting .