Holidays and Alzheimer’s: What Changes?

As we reach this time of holidays and family get-togethers, there is a certain degree of energy, noise, and chaos that we all expect. But that pandemonium can be more difficult for some than for others. If you have a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s disease or another variation of dementia, you know that this time of year can create some mixed feelings.

While it is always wonderful to celebrate the holidays with your family and remember celebrations past, there is the knowledge that gatherings and customs may have to change. For some caregivers, this means extra work, while for many family members, there may be a sense of loss as some long-time traditions are set aside in favor of new adaptations.

However, this time of year can still bring plenty of cheer, family and community moments, and, of course, new memories.

If you are preparing to celebrate this holiday season with a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, here are a few tips to make things easier on both them and you, while keeping the season enjoyable for everyone.

Have check-ins with the person living with dementia

A person with Alzheimer’s in its early stages may experience minor changes. Their comfort level with socializing and attending events may be the same, or it may seem uncomfortable now. To keep expectations clear, and to know where everyone stands, make a habit of checking in with each other. See how they feel as things get started and periodically throughout the event.

It only takes a simple “How are you feeling?” or “Do you need a break?” to let you know where they stand. Then you can help them step away if they need it, or let them enjoy their holiday activity.

Later stages of Alzheimer’s may take a little more than a few check-ins. You may need to adapt your plans to accommodate their needs. This may take some trial and error, but it is possible to find a way to celebrate with your loved one.

Involve them in planning

Take the time to include your family member in preparing for your holiday celebrations. There are plenty of safe ways to do get them involved, and doing so helps prepare them for the coming activity. Some ways to include them are:

  • Food preparation, decoration, wrapping gifts, and table setting. Pattern-oriented tasks with an obvious goal can be perfect for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. However, you would do best to avoid using blinking lights or artificial or decorative vegetables or fruits in your decorations, as a person living with Alzheimer’s or dementia may mistake them for the real thing and become confused.
  • Use a base of traditions and memories that you know they like, but adapt to less stressful versions. If you know your family member loves caroling but doesn’t do well being out and about, you can sing carols at home. Or, if they no longer do well with loud noises, replace caroling entirely with something quieter.
  • Take their regular schedule into account as best you can when planning their activities. If your family member eats at the same time every day, plan to have your holiday meal at that time. This will help prevent disruptions in your family member’s routine and keep things a little less confusing.

Familiarize others in advance

Family is an integral part of the holiday season. However, they can also be an added source of stress if they are less familiar with interacting with your relative’s current stage of Alzheimer’s or dementia. An easy way to minimize this stress is to send out an update in advance of any holiday get-togethers to prepare visitors and give them tips.

  • First, be sure to encourage people to visit. Some may be hesitant to visit and cause additional stress on you or the person with Alzheimer’s. Let them know that they are welcome. However, if they come in large groups, or if there is a party, it might be best to have them visit with the person one on one, or in smaller groups in a separate room to keep from overwhelming them. If possible, try to schedule visits for times of day when the person is at their best.
  • In your update, let any visitors know in advance of holidays of any changes in health, memory, of behavior since their previous visit. If their appearance has changed, a picture could help. This update can help prevent any negative or shocked reactions at the time of the visit.
  • Share some suggestions on how best to communicate with your loved one. For example, recommend not interrupting, remind them that stories are likely to be repeated, and let them know that correcting small details might confuse the person.
  • Let your visitors know what activities you have planned for the holidays–including what changes you are going to implement–beforehand and give them a chance to bring or plan something as well. Maybe they could bring a photo album or something similar to go through with your family members with Alzheimer’s to create a new tradition with them.

Adapt plans and expectations

Traditions will change if you take up caregiving, even if you only do so for the holidays. But sometimes the changes can be a simple matter of remembering to take care of yourself and your family or keeping your gathering small.

  • Keep your holiday gatherings small. If you might typically have a group upwards of 15 people, try keeping it closer to five this year. This smaller group minimizes the stress on you as well as keeping the chaos of the event down. With less noise and fewer people, the event will be easier for your loved one.
  • Remember that you don’t need to do everything on your own. You can have a potluck instead of a home-cooked meal. Have the kids or friends help clean the house. Maybe a guest can run those last-minute errands on their way. They usually have to make a stop anyway.
  • Plan a lunch or brunch instead of dinner. Scheduling your holiday gathering this way could help you avoid sundowning, or the confusion many Alzheimer patients get in the early evening. It is always best to try to work your celebrations into the established as well as you can.
  • Many holidays involve gift-giving, and you want to still include your loved one in this tradition. Recommend to friends and family gifts that are useful to this person, such as their favorite music, photo albums, or comfortable and easy-to-remove clothing. Remind them that, though they may have enjoyed them before, dangerous or complicated games, puzzles, utensils, or tools are no longer good gifts.
  • As for giving gifts, involve the person if their abilities will allow–and they want to, of course. If they used to bake, have them help make cookie dough and help pack the finished cookies into pretty containers. Let them help wrap boxes, then unwrap them when the time comes. Focus on the current task, not the result.
  • If you are going out for the holidays, keep your time away brief. And, while you are out, ensure there is a place to rest.
  • Provide a quiet area for the person with Alzheimer’s to go if they need time alone or to visit with someone one-on-one. However, try to keep the noise level low even in the main rooms of your gathering. This effort will keep your loved one at ease a little longer than it would otherwise.

Create a safe environment

Too many changes to an environment that your family member is used to can confuse, and some holiday changes could even be a safety hazard. Take precautions when decorating. Here are a few tips on how to do so safely:

  • Some people like to go all out for their displays during the holidays, especially Christmas. However, the blinking lights, clutter, and rearranged furniture that often becomes a part of that can lead to confusion in Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. While you can still decorate, it would be best to do so without the blinking lights. Spread out or minimize the decorations so that they don’t feel overwhelming or cluttered. And don’t rearrange the furniture because you don’t want to interfere with the routine.
  • Avoid fragile decorations or those that could be mistaken for food. If you are using a tree, secure it to the wall for support to avoid a fall. And if you want candles, electric candles are a safe alternative to burning, though if you do light burning candles in your kinara, menorah, or just around the house, be sure not to leave them unattended.
  • Play familiar music that you know your family member likes and keep it at a low volume to keep it from being distressing.

Celebrate in their facility

If you won’t have your family member home for the holidays, you can visit them. Here are some tips on celebrating in their care facility.

  • Find out what the facility already has planned. They may have activities for your loved one that you–and maybe a few extras–can join in on. Check well in advance so you know how many people can come.
  • If you have a large family, don’t bring everyone to come at once. It can be overwhelming. Make arrangements for people to come by on different days to give a gift or participate in facility activities.
  • Bring something with you. A holiday treat, a story or poem to read, or a song to sing with the residents will likely be appreciated, especially this time of year.

Take care of yourself

As we get closer and enter the holidays, you will find your preparations for the events, caregiving, and hosting taking up most of your time. All of this can become immensely stressful. You need to remember that this is your holiday too, and to take care of yourself.

  • First, prioritize. Don’t try to do all of the holiday activities that you’ve done in the past. Choose your favorites and focus on those. That’s all you need.
  • Let everyone else know what you will be contributing. Tell them your plans and set realistic expectations for what will be happening. Don’t let them push you into doing more than is reasonable.
  • Don’t forget to delegate. You don’t have to do everything yourself. Let others help with shopping and cleaning.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for some time away from your caregiving responsibilities. Everyone knows that this time of year can get stressful. If you need some time away for yourself, ask a friend or family member to step in so that you can take a break.

Your holiday seasons are sure to change now that you have a family member with Alzheimer’s or with dementia, but they can still be a celebration. With only a few additional steps taken and a smaller gathering, you can enjoy the holiday with your loved one just as much as before.