How to adjust holiday plans when someone in your family has dementia

Living room decorated for Christmas

If you’re spending part of the holidays at home with someone in your family who has dementia, adjusting your expectations will be helpful so that it is as positive as possible for everyone. And that’s not easy, considering how important holiday traditions are to many families.

We asked two experts for practical advice – Robin Smart, Public Education Coordinator for Alzheimer Society Waterloo-Wellington and our own Kait Carnegie, (former) Activation Coordinator.

Keep people emotionally comfortable

Robin: I think that it’s really, really important that you know that people living with dementia – no matter what type of dementia, no matter where they are in their journey of dementia – they retain the ability to feel emotion. They don’t always retain the ability to control their emotions, but they do retain the ability to feel their own emotion.

And so it’s really, really important that we keep people emotionally comfortable, that we keep them calm, that we keep them happy. That will make everybody’s life more comfortable.

People with dementia might not show emotions anymore with their facial expression. They might not have the words to tell you when they’re not feeling comfortable. But they will read your body language. And they will read your tone of voice. And they will know if you are being sincere with them, if you are comfortable with them.

Be aware of that to start with. You need to recognize that fact. And then you need to go with the flow. You’re not there to be the truth police, you’re not there to be Mr. or Mrs. Correction, you’re there to join their journey. What you want to do is you want to connect, not correct.

And if the person is having strong emotion, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that. “Yeah, it is really special, isn’t it?” Or, “That is important, isn’t it?” Whatever it is. And then they’ll likely be okay, often in a few minutes. These emotions can just bubble up out of nowhere. And you want to be aware that that’s not unusual in the disease process. And you want to be aware that it’s not always about you.

Reduce the overwhelm

Robin: People become easily overwhelmed when they have dementia. When you have a healthy brain, you have the ability to sort out what’s important to attend to and what can be ignored. You have the ability to hold multiple thoughts at a time. But people with dementia lose that. So, everything is incoming and intense and stimulating and it can be very overwhelming to them. And it can be very difficult to keep up with the pace of everything that’s going on in the holidays. It just becomes too much.

People with dementia process more slowly. They think and act more slowly. And so, they become easily overwhelmed, even though everybody’s having a good time. They can’t tune out the noise. They can’t ignore the flashing lights on the tree in the corner while the music is playing while the kids are there.

So, you really want to think about how you can make the atmosphere calmer, quieter and adequately lit so the person isn’t in danger of misinterpreting shadows or not seeing things clearly or at risk of tripping over things.

If your extended family is getting together by Zoom, you may have 12 faces on the screen all at once. It can be very confusing and very overwhelming. So, the person often just gets up and moves away. And you’re thinking, “Hey, I went to all this trouble. I got every cousin to Zoom in to say Merry Christmas to you. And what are you doing? Where are you going?” It’s hard to see it through their eyes and their filters.

Don’t expect traditional behaviours

Robin: Imagine that your family is gathered at the Christmas table for dinner (even if it’s a smaller group this year because of the pandemic). The person with dementia might get up and leave the table. They might find that all the noise and all the stimulation and all the conversation is too much.

Instead of insisting they come back and sit down, let them sit in a chair in the corner and observe from a distance. Maybe you take over a bowl of pudding or trifle or whatever you’re having for your Christmas dessert, let them sit there and eat their pudding, if that makes them comfortable. You want them physically and emotionally comfortable.

Activity ideas

Looking for things to do during the holidays with someone who has dementia?

Kait: You can get them to help with decorating the home or decorating the tree. Or making sugar cookies or gingerbread cookies and decorating them with their grandkids, or just allowing them to decorate them on their own. It can keep them a little bit distracted and busy on a task.

And while they’re doing that, you may reminisce about past Christmases or what their favourite part of the holidays is. That takes little to no brain power for them because they’re long-term memories [which they still have access to] instead of short-term memories.

Holiday music. It’s easy. Everyone knows the majority of songs or at least they know the rhythm or they can hum along. And it can cue them to what time of year it is as well.

A craft idea is to make homemade Christmas cards for family and friends. I make Christmas cards every year with our residents. It’s a very simple task of tracing or cutting out or just gluing things that are already cut out. We’ve made a Christmas card with “lights,” and the lights were actually finger-painted on.

And as long as it’s safe to do so, take them on winter wonderland drive. Go see the beautiful snow on the trees or, in the evening, go see Christmas lights.

Get them to help fill stockings for their children or their grandchildren. That’s something they can do pretty easily.

Above all, allow them tons of time to rest. The holidays can be exhausting for all of us, let alone someone living with dementia. They may be too proud to say they need a rest, but make sure there’s some sort of area for them where they can have some quiet time or just kind of unwind or get away from all the commotion.

If you’re looking for some fresh ideas on gift giving for your loved one who has dementia, be sure to read our article that includes a variety of suggestions: