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

Last Updated: August 30, 2018

While the holidays are a joyful time for many, they can be stressful and frustrating for caregivers, as well as people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. This page discusses some of the challenges associated with the holidays and offers suggestions in order to make them more enjoyable.

The Holiday Blues

Depression is common among the older population, and holidays, especially Christmas, can increase or compound feelings of sadness. The person with dementia may feel a sense of loss during the holidays. They may miss a loved one who they lost a long time ago, may not recognize the family around them, or may feel that someone is missing. Caregivers may also feel a sense of loss since their loved one is not the same as he / she was for prior holidays. Tending to such emotions may be particularly challenging during the holidays when so much is going on.

It is common for people with dementia to lack enthusiasm and interest in holidays. Caregivers may feel nostalgic over activities that their loved ones no longer understand or are able to participate in. Special traditions, such as decorating the house, lighting candles, or having company over for a meal may become too bothersome or dangerous to continue.


Travel & Disrupted Routines

The holiday season can disrupt routines that have barely been established for the person with dementia. Changes to the daily schedule, the presence of unfamiliar faces, or a large group of people around can upset people with dementia. Having time off and spending the holidays with relatives often means that travel is involved. If you are feeling overburdened, it is okay to ask relatives to come to see you this year, or skip the reunion altogether.


Tips for Traveling with Persons with Dementia

Traveling with a person with dementia can be difficult, so it is imperative that you plan for the trip in advance. Doing so will make the trip more enjoyable for everyone, as you will be prepared for any potential problems. When making travel arrangements, consider the stage of your loved one’s disease, and whether the trip you are considering 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 is appropriate for you and your loved one’s abilities, needs, and preferences.

Make note of the following suggestions 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.


Suggestions for a Happy Holiday

While some traditions may no longer be practical or possible, new traditions can be started. 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 up paper chains
  • Making wreaths
  • Creating photo albums
  • Baking cookies
  • Writing and addressing greeting cards
  • Listening to holiday music
  • Singing holiday songs
  • Reading holiday or religious stories

It also helps to keep expectations in line with reality. If the perfect family get-together isn’t in the cards, you can still look forward to spending time together and enjoying 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.