As a caregiver for someone with dementia, you know how important it is to provide a sense of routine. Unfortunately, the holidays are anything but routine. Is it possible to include your loved one in the seasonal joy without hurting their well-being?
In truth, it’s not easy. But with a bit of planning, you and your family can make it work.
Here are a few tips for making the holidays fun, safe and comfortable for a person who has dementia and all the people who support them.
Bring the Party to Your Loved One
Dementia and Alzheimer’s can change how a person interprets their environment. The places you used to visit during holidays, such as relatives’ homes or places of worship, may now feel unfamiliar and disorienting.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate, but it might mean celebrating somewhere new.
Instead of uprooting your loved one to go to a holiday gathering, consider having a small party in the place where your loved one is most comfortable – at home. This allows you to maintain their familiar routine, allowing them to relax and enjoy the day as much as possible.
Remember: home is wherever your loved one feels safe and secure. This year, it could be your family home, an apartment, a suite in a long-term care community, or even a hospital room.
If your loved one lives in long-term care, tell the staff about your plans beforehand. They can help you decide on the best time to visit and how many people should come. The facility might even have special holiday activities planned that your family could join in!
For individuals who have sundown symptoms, host a Christmas brunch instead of the typical Christmas dinner. Try to stick to your loved one’s routine as much as possible, including times for rest, meals, medications and exercise.
While it’s thoughtful to decorate for the occasion, be aware that not all holiday décor is appropriate for guests who have dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association cautions against using blinking lights or any decorations that could be mistaken for food.
Keep Guests Informed
The holidays are an occasion for far-flung relatives to come together and make up for lost time.
For many families, it’ll be the first time everyone has seen each other in a year. This means your guests may not know how your loved one’s condition has changed since the last reunion. Your out-of-town friends and relatives could be feeling nervous or unsure of what to expect.
If your guests aren’t already aware, bring them up to speed with your loved one’s situation before the big day arrives. The Alzheimer’s Association has prepared examples of warm-but-informative messages you can use to update your relatives by email or in a group chat. You can tailor these messages based on your loved one’s circumstances.
This step helps to ensure guests will approach your loved one with compassion, respecting any boundaries or limitations based on their condition.
If the individual has had a major change in appearance, consider sending guests a recent photograph as well.
Don’t forget to inform younger relatives of your loved one’s condition. Many kids are non-judgemental about dementia, but they may also be upset by the changes.
If your loved one can use the phone, arrange a phone call or video call between them and your guests before the celebrations. This will show guests what to expect and give your loved one a helpful memory cue.
Prepare Your Loved One for Visits with Guests
We all get a bit anxious before a big holiday gathering. What should I wear? Who’s going to be there? Should I ask about so-and-so?
For a person living with dementia, this nervous excitement can escalate to fear and confusion. Social situations can feel overwhelming, and your loved one may need your help to guide them through the occasion.
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take in the days and hours leading up to the holidays to help your loved one prepare.
Go through a photo album together before everyone arrives. Explain who’s coming to visit and share a memory of good times passed.
Identify the guests to your loved one as they arrive through the door. You can use a photo album to help here, too.
Prepare a safe, quiet space separate from the rest of the celebration where your loved one can go if they feel overwhelmed. Be sure to spend time there together beforehand if it’s unfamiliar.
Everyone wants to be included, especially during the holidays! With a bit of ingenuity, just about every beloved tradition can be adapted to suit your loved one’s abilities.
Consider straightforward activities like:
Helping your loved one send out Christmas cards (encourage your relatives to send cards you can open together, too!)
Baking some favourite holiday treats, with your loved one supervising, decorating cookies, measuring ingredients or taste-testing.
Making phone calls or video calls to family and friends who can’t be there for holiday celebrations.
Shopping for gifts and help your loved one wrap them.
Attending religious services or watching a televised service.
Help for the Holidays
There are times when we could all use a helping hand. Between party-planning, gift-wrapping, snow-shovelling and caregiving, the holidays are definitely one of those times.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help – it’s often the best gift you can give yourself and your loved one.