How to Navigate the Holidays when a Loved One has Alzheimer’s Disease or Related Dementia

Last Updated: August 27, 2020


Holidays can be especially stressful and frustrating for caregivers and their loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. With the right planning, however, this can still be a joyful time of year, with gatherings and traditions carried on despite the dementia. On this page, we discuss some of the challenges associated with the holidays and offer suggestions to make them more enjoyable.


The Holiday Blues

Depression is common among the older population (more than 6 million Americans are estimated to have late-life depression), and holidays, especially Christmas, can increase those feelings of sadness. A person with dementia may feel a sense of loss during the holidays—missing someone who passed away a long time ago, or maybe not recognizing the family around them and feeling that something is wrong.

Caregivers can feel a similar sense of loss because their loved one is not the same as during prior holidays. Tending to such emotions may be particularly hard during the time of year when so much is going on. It

is common for people with dementia to lack enthusiasm and interest in holidays. Activities they once loved might not make sense anymore; special traditions like decorating the house, lighting candles, or having company over for a big meal may become too bothersome or dangerous to continue.


Suggestions for Happy Holidays

Be Flexible
Caregivers are the best judges of what their loved ones with dementia will enjoy and what will make them feel scared or uncomfortable. Listen to your instincts. Be flexible. Changes may be necessary.

– Many people with dementia become confused or agitated in the evenings (this is called sundowning), so a family brunch or lunch might be better than dinner.
– If your loved one is bothered by large gatherings, have visitors come a few at a time rather than all at once.
– Whether you’re at home or somewhere else, find a quiet place you can take your loved one to rest if needed.

Plan Fun Dementia-Friendly Activities
Simple, repetitive tasks are safe and fun to do with your loved one with dementia. Such activities include the following:

– Stringing garlands of popcorn or berries
– Linking paper chains
– Making wreaths
– Wrapping presents
– Creating photo albums
– Baking cookies
– Writing and addressing greeting cards
– Listening to holiday music
– Singing holiday songs
– Reading holiday or religious stories

Remember to focus on the activity itself, spending time together making something, rather than the outcome. Who cares if the wrapping doesn’t lay down smooth, or the cookies don’t taste perfect?

 The holidays are a time for eating and drinking more than usual. Watch that your loved one with dementia doesn’t eat too many sweets or drink alcohol, because it may cause symptoms to get much worse.

Careful With Decorations
Holiday decorations can often be breakable and / or flammable. Keep anything like this, including candles or bigger lights, away from your loved one. Putting them out of reach might be enough, but it might be best to stick with simple decorations that can’t cause problems, like wreaths or ribbons or plush snowmen and reindeer.

Blinking lights and anything that makes noise on its own, like motion detectors that play carols when you walk by, are not good for someone with dementia. Think about simplicity and safety.

Preparing Someone with Dementia for Family Gatherings (By Stages)
In the early stages of dementia, memory loss and other thinking or physical problems are easier to manage, and your loved one can probably communicate about how they are feeling. This means that as you prepare for the holidays, you two can talk about what situations are comfortable and how your loved one would like to spend the time.

In later stages, it will be up to you as the caregiver to be especially mindful. You will need to consider all activities and visitors beforehand, thinking especially about whether you might be putting a person with dementia into a situation that will make symptoms like confusion or aggression worse.

Preparing Family for Holidays with Someone with Dementia
If family and friends are getting together, have a meeting beforehand to talk about your loved one. This could be a group chat online. Be specific about what is and is not allowed. Cover the following topics, and any others you think are important:

– The stage of dementia and what symptoms they might see.
– The daily routine and why it’s important.
– Being patient during conversations, without correcting or questioning.
– Don’t be offended if he/she forgets you, or acts inappropriately.
– Stick to appropriate activities, like those listed above.
– Gifts must be dementia-appropriate. Safety is most important.

It also helps to keep expectations in line with reality. If the perfect family get-together isn’t in the cards, you can still enjoy the holiday in other ways. Plan to do something special, but keep it simple, such as going for a walk together. Try to stick with regular schedules as much as possible, and plan activities during the time of day when your loved one is most calm and interested. And remember to take care of yourself and your own needs while also caring for your loved one. Learn more about care for caregivers here.


Travel & Disrupted Routines

The holiday season disrupts routines. Routine is hugely important for managing symptoms of dementia, and changes to the daily schedule, the presence of unfamiliar faces, or a large group of people can upset people with dementia.

Having time off and spending the holidays with relatives often means that travel is involved. If you feel overburdened, it is okay to ask relatives to come to you this year, or skip the reunion altogether.

When making travel arrangements, consider the stage of your loved one’s disease, and whether a trip is a good idea, or even feasible. Be sure the type of travel (car, bus, train, airplane), the length of time you will be away from home, and the place you are visiting are appropriate for you and your loved one’s abilities, needs, and preferences.

Make note of the following suggestions and checklist items when traveling with someone with dementia:

– Pack any medication(s) your loved one is taking and be sure to bring enough doses.
– Pack a change of clothes (or a few) in case of incontinence issues, spills, etc.
– Ask a friend or another relative to come along to provide assistance.
– Schedule extra bathroom stops along the way to your destination.
– Schedule extra rest breaks.
– Travel during the day rather than in the evening.
– Do your best to avoid unfamiliar or busy places that might upset, confuse, or frustrate your loved one.


Celebrating Holidays in Memory Care

If your loved one lives in an assisted living or memory care community, it might be up to your family to bring the celebration there. These residences will have their own celebrations and events, and you should make sure to check schedules and speak with staff there about the best way to bring the spirit of the season. Some of the ways you can make the holidays special in memory care include:

-Decorating the living unit with photographs or ornaments, including any keepsakes that have sentimental value and might remind your loved one of past holidays.
– Have relatives visit throughout December, with soothing activities your loved one might enjoy like listening to carols, wrapping presents for grandkids, or looking through photo albums.
– Start with a small number of visitors at first, and then bring more people if you can tell the visits are bringing some joy.