Skip to Main Content (717) 697-3223

Keep Dementia from Overwhelming the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us, and many families are engaging in a variety of festivities. The increased hustle and bustle of this time of year may increase exposure to large gatherings of people and create changes in daily routines. While families may have good intentions in trying to keep their loved ones with dementia involved in holiday preparations and celebrations, these activities have the potential to trigger responses of fear, anger and agitation because of the increased stimulation of a brain that is unable to process information effectively.

There are ways to help your loved one participate in holiday activities while minimizing associated stress. Tailoring activities to the interests and strengths of the individual will improve his/her ability to successfully navigate holiday events.

Since individuals with dementia may not be able to identify or verbalize their feelings, keep the following tips in mind, and remain alert to your loved one’s body language for signs indicating a rise in stress level and the need to step away for a break.

Does your family have certain traditions with regard to the holidays? Long-term memory is generally better than short-term memory, and individuals may respond well to familiar scenarios—such as the smell of a favorite type of cookie while it is baking, placement of heirloom decorations in their usual location, and holiday music sung by classic artists they have listened to for years.

When interacting with people with dementia, family and friends should avoid asking, “Do you remember me?” This is a threatening question since the person with dementia may recognize others as familiar faces but be unable to recall a name or the relationship. Instead, when greeting the person others should just introduce themselves, and if possible, allow the one with dementia to lead the conversation.

If conversation is difficult for the individual with dementia, the opportunity to browse through old photo albums of family memories may be a good way to share time with your loved one. Including some recent photos also can provide cues to help the individual connect the past and the present.

Holiday baking should be catered to the skills of the individual. For those who have limited ability, it may be easier to pre-mix the dough and then have the person help with dropping portions onto cookie sheets or decorating cookies that are otherwise ready to bake.

Wrapped packages may need to be kept out of sight until they are ready to be shared, in order to avoid having them unwrapped early or “permanently” hidden by the individual who is trying to “help.”

If you desire to attend events with large crowds, flexibility is essential. If possible, begin with short outings to controlled environments so that you can judge your loved one’s ability to handle different types of stimulation. Sit in the back at concerts or church services so that a quick exit can be made if necessary. Staying on the outer edge of a crowd in a large area will reduce the possibility of unexpected and misinterpreted activity coming from behind the individual and creating anxiety.

For a large family meal, seat the individual where he/she is near an end of the table and has space to get up and leave if the situation becomes overwhelming. Being seated next to family members who are the most familiar is helpful so that these folks can provide cues and assistance if the individual appears uncertain about what to do. If everyone doesn’t fit around one table, allow the individual to sit at a smaller table off to the side with other adults who are comforting to him/her.

Whatever the activity, manage your time wisely. Avoid a need to rush, since this will create tension and increase the probability of a less satisfying experience. The length of an activity is also an important consideration. When the mind has to work harder to process stimuli, the individual will tire faster, so always be prepared to leave early if needed.

One final tip – be aware of your own mood and behavior. Although verbal communication becomes more difficult as dementia progresses, affected individuals will continue to respond to the nonverbal cues that they observe and sense in others around them. They may not be able to identify an emotion or its cause, but if you are feeling a certain way, chances are your loved one with dementia will experience similar feelings. If you are having a “bad day,” you may want to consider rescheduling activities which include your loved one with dementia.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN