December 17, 2019

Helping people with dementia cope during holiday gatherings

Helping include a loved one with dementia in the holidays does require adjustment and planning. But these preparations are important because if someone has dementia, that doesn’t take away their desire to enjoy the holidays.

UW Health Geriatric Medicine and Geriatric Psychiatry offer the following suggestions for caregivers planning a holiday with a person who has dementia.

Keep holiday events simple for individuals with dementia

A key to planning holiday events with someone with dementia is to keep things as simple as possible, but find ways to include them. Determine some things your loved one can do and make sure they are included in these opportunities. Can they roll or decorate cookies? Can they chop vegetables? Can they fold the table linens or set the table or arrange the food on trays? How can they be a part of the preparation?

It’s important to consider the timing and duration of the holiday gathering. People with dementia often get tired more easily; and the time of day for is an important factor to consider. Late afternoon or early evening is often not a good time of day for a person with dementia. It’s likely far better to have a gathering or activity in the morning or early afternoon, so consider a holiday brunch or early lunch rather than an evening party. If you’re at someone else’s home, give yourself permission to leave early if necessary.

Plan ahead in case loved ones with dementia become overwhelmed

Create a list of things you know your loved one enjoys and be prepared to use this list when your loved one becomes upset. Distraction can be your greatest asset at times. Consider distributing that list amongst your family members so that everyone can be involved in the care.

If an activity includes a large group of people, consider a quieter, separate space the person with dementia can retreat to if needed. Find a quiet place where the person with dementia can sit quietly and engage in a reorienting behavior like a puzzle or listening to music. Maybe the person needs some headphones to put on so they can zone out.

Prepare loved ones and guests

Prepare yourself and loved ones in advance: If the person with dementia has been experiencing changes and the guests have not seen the person in a long time, talk to them in advance about what to expect. You may need to provide examples of how the person with dementia might behave. For example, your grandma who has dementia might chew loudly, not use their usual table manners, or interrupt people. She may get distracted and walk away from conversations. Let family and friends know not to be defensive or take these behaviors personally. In many cases, if friends and family can be calm and friendly, the outcome will be better for everyone.

Additional tips for helping loved ones with dementia

Ask for Help: Caregivers should try to ask for help when they can. If you are the primary caregiver, select things others can do for you and ask specific people to do them. Try not to be shy, it’s possible others may want to help but don’t know how.

Make Music: One important thing a person with dementia can enjoy even in later stages of the disease is music. Music ability can last longer than verbal ability. A person with dementia can often enjoy music, sing, and dance. Family photo albums can also be enjoyable for everyone to share and to use as a conversation tool.

Think About Diet Needs: When meal planning, consider that holiday foods can be overly rich and quite different than a person with dementia’s ordinary diet. Limit rich foods and always keep chewing and choking difficulties in mind. Avoid alcohol, but if it’s very important to include as part of a tradition, dilute it if necessary.

Make Your Home Safe: Address home safety by securing fireplaces and limiting candles. If you are lighting candles, for example, make sure that you're not leaving unlit candles and matches around where the person with dementia might decide to light them when you're not around. Avoid having things around the house that look like edible, but are not. Put away the fake fruits, fake vegetables, and fake cornucopias.

Avoid Clutter: Anything that twinkles, blinks, flashes, or makes loud noises can be a particular source of agitation and difficulty for someone with dementia. Avoid clutter and try to keep common areas and walkways clean and clear. Gift boxes and packing supplies from decorations can clutter pathways and create a falling risk, especially if someone can't orient themselves anymore.

With planning and cooperation from the family, the holidays can be a time for a person with dementia to find opportunity for fun and socialization, and they can be an opening for caregivers to find assistance. A person with dementia is not their diagnosis. Even if the person does not later remember the details of a holiday gathering, they can have a positive, emotional response that lasts far longer than the event. If you make someone feel happy during the holidays, they can retain those good feelings and happiness for 24 to 48 hours.