Celebrating the Holidays When a Loved One Has Dementia



Celebrating the holidays with a loved one who has dementia can pose a number of unique challenges. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to enjoy a holiday celebration and traditions with this love done. If you’re hoping for a good holiday but are unsure of how to approach things due to your loved one’s dementia, the following tips can help.

Use the Senses to Evoke Memories

The senses, especially taste, smell and hearing, have a powerful effect on memories. Your loved one may not remember a specific event if it’s mentioned in conversation, but a sensory experience associated with the event could help bring the memory back.

When planning your holiday festivities, make your loved one’s favorite dishes and put on familiar tunes that they know well. The tastes, smells and songs may help bring to mind past holidays that are associated with cherished memories.

Share old photos of well-known places

Old photographs are another resource you might use to help your loved one remember past holiday celebrations. Just keep in mind that they may be embarrassed if they don’t remember a family member or dear friend’s name.

Instead of showing your loved one photos of family members and friends and asking them if they recall who’s in the pictures, use a less direct way of sharing photos so they won’t be ashamed if they can’t recall who is pictured. You can:

  • Put up a few photographs when decorating, so people can notice or pass by the pictures as they choose
  • Play a game trying to guess who is in old photos or baby photos, with everyone present guessing
  • Share photos of well-known places, which lets your loved one say they don’t remember the place rather than anyone in the picture

Opt for a simple celebration

Unfamiliar things can be frightening to someone whose memory is failing them, and even simple holiday items can become unfamiliar over a yearlong period. Just because your loved one remembered something last year doesn’t mean that he or she will remember it this year, especially if their condition has significantly worsened

Help your loved one enjoy, rather than be fearful of, all that’s going on by keeping your holiday celebration simple. Depending on what they’re comfortable with, you may want to only put up a few decorations, limit the number of gifts exchanged or even forgo a tree or candles.

Help your loved one act properly

At times, your loved one may not know hot to properly act during your family’s holiday celebration. They may be paralyzed by fear, or they may be confused about everything going on.

If you ever sense that your loved one either isn’t sure what they should do or will make a major faux pas, take the lead and guide them in what they should do. For instance, after they open a gift, you might want to remind them who the present was from and to say thank you.

If they’re having a particularly difficult time, you might even need to say something like “Mom, do you want to say ‘thank you, Jim?’” With such a direct question, your loved one can simply repeat what you say, or can simply say “yes.”

Keep activities calm

Lots of hubbub can make someone with dementia uneasy, and even those who don’t mind the activity can become fatigued after a daylong celebration. Young children, large family gatherings and constant activities can all take a toll.

Help keep your loved one from getting too overwhelmed by all that’s going on. Don’t be afraid to:

  • Have people move to a different room for a while
  • Ask kids to play in a different part of the house (especially if they got loud toys for gifts)
  • Specifically set aside some downtime in the middle of the day
  • Suggest everyone go outside for a while, take a shopping trip or see a movie

Celebrating the holidays with a loved one who’s suffering from dementia takes some forethought, but it isn’t too challenging. Keep these tips in mind, and you, your family and your loved one can all have a great time.


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