Holidays bring families together to share and observe cherished traditions. But for a relative with memory loss, the holidays can be challenging—especially as we move into our second pandemic holiday season.

These thirteen suggestions can help you plan holiday celebrations that include your loved one with memory loss:

  1.  Recognize that holidays are not the same as they have been in the past. Gatherings may be smaller. Common feelings of loss, sadness, and anger at the disease of dementia (not to mention covid) may be heightened. Talk with other family members who may be experiencing some of these same feelings.
  2. Give yourself permission to do only what you can manage. Ask family and friends for their ideas on how to make it a safe, enjoyable and manageable holiday.
  3. Try altering traditions, not eliminating them. Help your relative enjoy the spirit of the holidays. Holiday baking, holiday cards, sing-alongs, gift wrapping, being with grandchildren, etc. can be adapted to your relative’s abilities, schedule, and immune system. A short, simple activity is often preferable.
  4. Consider celebrating with your relative before or after the holiday. Celebrating a few days before or after may be more manageable and less stressful for everyone. A holiday is still a holiday wherever and whenever you celebrate it.
  5. Plan smaller gatherings. In smaller groups, the person with memory loss may find it easier to process what is being said and be part of the conversation.
  6. Focus on connection and communication. Equip your family to move and talk slowly with your relative. People with memory loss need more time to process who you are and what you are saying and doing.
  7. Maintain your relative’s routine as much as you can to avoid increased confusion. Try to schedule activities around your relative’s best time of day or at meal times.
  8. Be alert to signs of fatigue and increased confusion. Some people in the early stages of memory loss may retreat to a quiet place such as their bedroom when they feel overwhelmed or overstimulated. If your relative is in the later stages, watch for signs that she may need a break: changes in facial expressions, tone of voice, or behavior.
  9. Help prepare visitors. People who have not seen your relative in a while will appreciate knowing what to expect and do while being with your relative. Say something like, “I thought it might be helpful for you to know how mom is doing before you see her. Mom is having more problems remembering and recognizing people. Although she may not recognize you, I know she will appreciate your company, and so will I. Please don’t think it is strange when I introduce you. Sometimes this helps her be more relaxed.” Remind them that compassion is key to understanding your relative’s changing brain and behaviors.
  10. Think through where your relative is most comfortable. Taking the holiday celebration to your relative may be better than taking your relative to the holiday celebration. We know that as dementia progresses, routine and familiar environments become increasingly important.
  11. Keep it simple. It’s not how much you do but the enjoyment you and your relative receive from doing things and being together.
  12. Keep your relative covid-safe.  Older adults are more vulnerable and people with advanced dementia often have impaired immune systems as well.  Think carefully about how to keep your relative safe, whether it is with a very small gathering, wearing masks, meeting outdoors, making sure everyone is vaccinated or whatever measures you can bring to the holidays to ensure safety.
  13. Ask family and friends to get tested before the gathering, even if they are vaccinated. Covid tests are available at some clinics as well as pharmacies such as Walgreens, Target, Rite Aid and CVS.

We wish you and your relative with memory loss a warm, safe, holiday season full of meaning and connection.

Beth Spencer and Laurie White

Dementia Care Books

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