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Planning For The Holidays With Seniors And Dementia

A senior woman holding holiday lights. Her smiling granddaughters are in the background by a Christmas tree

As the holiday season approaches, older adults and their family caregivers often face unique challenges, especially when dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is part of the picture.

This guide is tailored to help seniors and their caregivers embrace the festive season while managing dementia with grace and safety.

Here, we’ll explore practical strategies, risk factors, and supportive measures to ensure a joyful and secure holiday experience for all.

Holidays With Dementia Sufferers

For many families, the holidays are a time of joy, togetherness, and tradition. However, when a family member has dementia, these occasions can present unique challenges.

Dementia, a condition characterized by memory loss, and a decline in communication, and ability to perform everyday activities, can significantly affect how a senior experiences and participates in holiday festivities.

Understanding and adapting to these changes is the best way to create a dementia-friendly holiday experience.

Understanding Dementia’s Impact On Holidays

  1. Changes in Perception and Understanding: Individuals with dementia may find it difficult to process too much stimuli, leading to confusion or anxiety. Bright lights, loud holiday music, and large gatherings that are common during holidays can be overwhelming.
  2. Disrupted Routines: The special events that come with this time of year often disrupt daily routines which can be unsettling for dementia patients. A familiar schedule provides comfort and security, and deviations from this can cause distress.
  3. Memory Challenges: While holidays are a great time for reminiscing, those with dementia may struggle to remember past holidays, potentially leading to a sense of loss and feelings of frustration or sadness.

18 Tips On Planning For The Holidays With Dementia

Navigating the holidays with a family member who has dementia requires thoughtful planning and adaptation.

Here are practical tips for older adults, seniors, and their caregivers to create a dementia-friendly holiday celebration:

Preparing The Environment

  1. Create a Safe Space: Ensure the environment is safe and comfortable. Remove any hazards and create quiet areas where the person with dementia can retreat if they feel overwhelmed. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America recommends, “Avoid fragile decorations (which can shatter and create sharp fragments) and ones that could be mistaken for edible treats (which can create a choking hazard or broken teeth). Reduce clutter to avoid potential tripping hazards. Securely hook Christmas trees to the wall to avoid falls and utilize menorahs or kinaras with electric candles to reduce fire hazards.”
  2. Familiar Decorations: Use decorations that are familiar and not overly stimulating. Avoid blinking lights or loud musical ornaments that could cause confusion or agitation.
  3. Visual Cues: Use visual cues like photographs and familiar items to help the person with dementia navigate the holiday period. These can also spark conversations and reminiscence.
  4. Daily Routine: As much as possible, it’s a good idea to stick to your loved one’s normal routine, even during family gatherings and holiday activities. If they eat meals at a certain time, keep to that schedule. If they nap at a certain time, try to find them a quiet space away from the activities so they can rest. Basically, do your best to be sure their routine stays as close to normal as possible.

Managing Activities And Gatherings

  1. Plan Small, Intimate Gatherings: A large group can be overwhelming. Spending time at smaller gatherings with close family and friends (in a familiar environment) can be more manageable and less disorienting. Have these gatherings at the dementia patient’s “best time of day” if they get tired or more confused towards evening.
  2. Incorporate Familiar Rituals: Maintain some of the person’s long-standing holiday traditions and familiar favorites to provide a sense of continuity and comfort.
  3. Engage in Simple Activities: Involve them in simple holiday preparations that are within their abilities. Perhaps they can wrap packages and gifts, help put up holiday decorations, decorate cookies, or set the table.
  4. Schedule Rest Periods: Plan time for rest. The excitement and activity of the holidays can be exhausting, particularly for someone with dementia.

Communication And Interaction

  1. Use Simple, Clear Communication: Speak slowly, clearly, and use familiar phrases. Avoid complex conversations or questions that could lead to frustration.
  2. Be Inclusive but Respect Limits: Include the person with dementia in activities and conversations as much as possible, but be aware of their limits and signs of fatigue or confusion.
  3. Foster Connections: Encourage guests to interact one-on-one with the person with dementia. Having quality time with an individual can be less overwhelming than group interactions.

Dealing With Changes And Challenges

  1. Realistic Expectations: If you and your family are used to big celebrations and non-stop activities, the Alzheimer’s Association recommends to “Arrange for a group discussion via telephone, video call, messaging app or email for family and friends to discuss holiday celebrations in advance.” You can discuss any changes in your loved one’s dementia status since the family’s last visit and you can relay what you can and cannot do towards keeping family traditions this season. This will go a long way towards helping the entire family avoid high expectations.
  2. Stay Flexible: Be prepared to modify plans if the person with dementia is having a particularly difficult day. Flexibility is key to managing unexpected situations.
  3. Handle Confusion with Care: If the person with dementia becomes confused, gently guide the conversation or activity back to familiar ground or to something comforting.
  4. Seek Support: Don’t hesitate to ask for help from other family members or professional caregivers. Caregiving during the holidays can be especially challenging.

Emotional Well-being

  1. Maintain a Positive Atmosphere: Focus on creating a joyful and loving environment, even if things don’t go as planned.
  2. Self-Care for Caregivers: Let’s face it, the holiday season is a time of high anxiety even though we love the festivities and holiday parties. Remember to find a quiet place to take breaks and care for your own well-being. It’s essential to manage your stress to be an effective caregiver.
  3. Celebrate Small Moments: Focus on the positive moments, no matter how small, and celebrate them.

By following these tips, older adults, seniors, and their caregivers can have a successful holiday season with more ease and less stress, creating a festive time that is enjoyable and respectful of the needs of those living with dementia.

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