Creating “Happy Holidays” for a Loved One Living with Alzheimer’s

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Tips for a dementia-friendly holiday celebration from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America

Families across the country are getting into the holiday spirit and planning their celebrations.  For the more than 5.8 million American families affected by Alzheimer’s disease, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) is providing tips on how to adapt holiday gatherings to make them as enjoyable as possible for someone living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia-related illness.

“Having Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean the holidays can’t still be enjoyable and special,” said Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr., AFA’s president and CEO.  “By making a few adaptations and preparations, family caregivers can help their loved ones living with Alzheimer’s have a happy holiday celebration.” 

Families caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease should consider the following steps:

  • Keep them involved.  Find ways to maintain a person’s involvement in the holiday celebration.  If they are used to doing the holiday cooking, keep them involved by inviting them into the preparation process. If they enjoyed music, play some of their favorite holiday songs or ones from their favorite era.
  • Build on past traditions and find new ways to connect.  Keep building on old traditions where you can; share old family photos with the person and reminisce.  Create new traditions; find things they are able to do and enjoy, such as looking at neighborhood holiday lights or listening to music, and spend time doing it with them.   To the greatest extent possible, ask the person what traditions are important to them, so you can prioritize and plan.
  • Be sensitive to the individual’s needs.  Excess stimuli can be challenging for someone living with dementia, which is why it’s important to take the environment into account ahead of time.  Be aware of the person’s sensitivity to factors such as crowds and loud noises, and try to plan celebrations in a way that minimizes those stresses.  Be mindful of over-decorating, as too many flickering lights or decorations can lead to overstimulation or disorientation.  Have comforting items and activities available to help.
  • Maintain the person’s normal routine.  Changes in one’s daily routine can also cause challenges for someone living with dementia.  Planning can be the key to ensuring a person’s comfort.  If the person usually takes an afternoon walk, build in time for that.  If they go to bed earlier in the evening, hold the celebration earlier in the day so that everyone can participate.
  • Be open.  Consider sharing beneficial information with family and friends regarding the person’s health prior to a gathering, especially with those who do not see that individual regularly.  This will enable them to understand where the person may be in the disease progression so that they know how they can be helpful and supportive.
  • Plan travel appropriately.  If you’re traveling with someone who has Alzheimer’s to a celebration, consider their capabilities and plan to make arrangements that are comfortable and realistic.  Take into account whether they travel better at a specific time of day.

Families who have questions or would like additional information can contact AFA’s Helpline at 866-232-8484 or through AFA’s website, www.alzfdn.org, and speak with a licensed social worker.  The helpline is open seven days a week.

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