Tips for Celebrating the Holidays with the Person with Dementia
The Joy of the Holidays
Whether you grew up Jewish, like myself, Christian or Muslim, we all have one thing in common – family get-togethers during the holidays. Usually these get-togethers involve a lot of food and, at times, gift exchanges. But no matter what the holiday or the tradition is, the focal point is always on the ‘get-together’ part. This once or twice-a-year event is when family members, who may rarely see one another, put aside all family dynamics and come together to celebrate holiday traditions. The bigger the family, the bigger the event: a big table, kids running around, multiple loud conversations or, as it may feel to the person who lives with dementia,
“A lot of people I don’t know who say a lot of things I don’t understand”.
If you have a loved one who lives with dementia, especially if they still live at home with you or with another family member (spouse, adult child), I’m sure the dilemma every holiday is not new to you: Should I bring my mom to Rosh Hashanah dinner?, How can I help my husband enjoy himself at the Christmas dinner party?
When you have a loved one who lives with dementia, holidays can bring up many emotions and memories of times gone by: when grandma cooked our favorite food during Eid al-Fitr, when grandpa lead the Passover Sadder, when mom made those beautiful stockings. But while everyone else may enjoy the social event, grandma may become anxious and restless looking around the unfamiliar room full of unfamiliar faces.
Five Tips to Help the Person with Dementia Enjoy the Holiday Season
When the Person Lives at Home
1.Communicate with the family
You know your loved one best, but not everyone in the extended family may be aware that they have dementia or to what extent.
An email sent to everyone with the important information about your loved one can help prevent many potentially stressful situations. Important information to share may be:
- How best to connect with the person with dementia: call them by their name, introduce yourself by name and your relationship to them (if you sense you look unfamiliar to them) and offer a warm hug.
- How to have a conversation: don’t ask questions that start with “do you remember…?”. instead tell the person something about you or your life or make a nice comment about the person.
- Keep the person involved: everyone should take turns spending a few minutes with the person to make sure they are included.
- Keep it short and sweet: don’t overwhelm the person with too much information or too much commotion.
- If a gift exchanged is planned: share gift ideas for that person.
2.Celebrate early in the day
As many older people get tired and sleepy later in the day, the person with dementia may get more confused and/or anxious in the late afternoon or early evening hours, especially as it gets darker. Start the celebration earlier in the day when there is still light outside.
3.Keep it small, simple and familiar
A familiar environment – familiar faces, familiar dishes, familiar smells – will make the event easier to handle. Invite a small group of close family members and have the celebration in the same house where the person lives to keep it familiar. Cook the same traditional dishes that you cook every year.
Keeping it the same as in the past will decrease the sense of confusion that is overwhelming for the person with dementia.
4. Attend to the important needs
Food and going to the bathroom are the most important things that need attention.
Make sure the person goes to the bathroom before everyone arrives and before leaving the event. Arrange to have the person sit where it is easy to get up from the table and go to the bathroom. Escort the person to the bathroom every two hours.
Arrange for a plate of food that is easy to self-feed: cutting anything that needs to be cut, avoiding food that may be challenging to eat with a fork, such as peas or rice (or provide a spoon) or that can spill, such as soup (or put it in a cup and let it cool a little).
If you need to arrange for an adult bib to avoid staining clothes, get one that is made from a festive holiday fabric (can easily get those online).
5. Be prepared to change your plans
If the person who lives with dementia gets restless or anxious earlier than expected, be prepared to either leave early if the celebration is not in their home, or to move them to the bedroom or another quiet room.
The Spirit of the Holiday is Everywhere
Just because your loved one may live in a memory care facility, it doesn’t mean they cannot (or should not) enjoy the holiday with family. However, as their dementia progresses, you will need to be attentive to their ability to participate and enjoy the family get-together. They may be at a stage where bringing them to the family event, while using the above tips, will allow them to enjoy the celebration with everyone. But time may come when leaving the memory care community, their now familiar environment, will overwhelm them to the extent that they won’t be able to enjoy the celebration. Furthermore, it may mean that you’ll need to give them your full attention to the point that it will affect your ability to enjoy it, too. When this is the case, you can still enjoy the festivity of the holiday, just in a different way.
Three Tips to Help the Person with Dementia Enjoy the Holiday Season
When the Person Lives in a Memory Care Community
1.Bring the spirit of the holiday to their home
Decorate their room with traditional holiday decorations that are familiar to them. Make it a joint activity, even if all they do is sit and watch you hanging the decorations around their room.
2.Keep the gift giving tradition
Help them think of gifts for the grandkids and wrap them together. Arrange for the grandkids to come for a visit and have them open gifts together. If the grandkids live far away, ask their parents to take pictures of them opening the gifts and share with the grandparent or, if possible, arrange for live video chat.
3.Take part in their celebration
The memory care community will have their own celebration around the holidays. Arrange for the closest family members to attend that celebration, whether it is a special dinner or holiday music sing-along.
Make this holiday season meaningful and enriching for both you and your loved one who lives with dementia. Keep the family tradition and help everyone feel part of the family.
Ronit Cohen is Senior Living Advisor and owner of A Home to Fit You. Ronit is passionate about educating families on the best ways to support a loved one by advocating for seniors to identify their care needs and personal wishes while navigating the journey to find their best living solution as well as support her clients through the transition and beyond.