The holiday season is a joyful one spent with loved ones — including families affected by dementia. Being adaptable and building an inclusive environment are key to creating dementia-friendly holidays and celebrations. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) provides tips on how families affected by dementia can adapt holiday gatherings to make them safe and dementia-friendly during this festive time.
The best way to support someone with dementia during the holidays is to create an inclusive environment to enjoy celebrations, while adapting to changes and being aware of the many emotions the holidays can bring.
Families caring for someone with dementia should consider these steps:
Adapt past favorite traditions or create new ones
Build on old traditions, such as enjoying favorite music or movies. Start new ones around things the persons can and likes to do, such as touring neighborhood holiday lights, and do it together. Whenever possible, involve the person by asking what traditions are important to them (this will help you prioritize). For example, if the person used to do the holiday cooking, make a new tradition to cook together as a family. If they oversaw hanging holiday lights, make it a group effort.
Excess stimuli may be challenging for someone with dementia. Too many flickering lights or decorations can be overstimulating and disorienting. Be aware of the person’s sensitivity to factors such as loud noises.
Create a safe and calm space
Avoid fragile decorations (which can shatter and create sharp fragments) and ones that could be mistaken for edible treats (which can create a choking hazard or broken teeth). Reduce clutter to avoid potential tripping hazards. Securely hook Christmas trees to the wall to avoid falls and utilize menorahs or kinaras with electric candles to reduce fire hazards.
Like with traditions, adapting celebrations is key for a dementia-friendly holiday. Emphasize what they enjoy while keeping in mind their safety and comfort.
Before the celebration, prepare the person. Help build familiarity and comfort by showing them photos of the guests or arrange a phone call/Facetime with visitors beforehand.
Be open with guests. Consider sharing beneficial information, such as ways guests can communicate with the person, what they respond well to and what may upset them — especially visitors who don’t regularly interact with the individual. This will guide them on how they can be supportive.
During the celebration, preserve normal routine. Changes in daily routine can be challenging for someone living with dementia. If the person usually takes an afternoon walk, build time for that. If they go to bed early, hold the celebration earlier so everyone can participate.
Connect with loved ones through technology. Videoconference (i.e., Facetime, Zoom, Skype) can include others who can’t attend in person.
Take a strengths-based and person-centered approach. Focus on what the person is able to do and what they choose to do now, rather than dwelling on what they used to do.
The AFA Helpline is available seven days a week to provide information about creating dementia-friendly holidays or other caregiving questions. Connect with a licensed social worker by calling 866-232-8484, web chatting at www.alzfdn.org or sending a text to 646-586-5283. The chat and text features serve individuals in more than 90 different languages.
About the author: Jennifer Reeder, LMSW, is the AFA director of Educational and Social Services.