Surviving holidays, dementia and a pandemic

Tips for a successful holiday season when your loved one has dementia

December is full of holidays and celebrations. It is a time of traditions. A time for family and friends. A time for decorations and festive scents. A joyfully busy time of shopping and preparations. However, holidays can also be stressful and lonely, especially for those caring for a loved one with any kind of dementia. The current pandemic makes these challenges even more difficult.

COVID safety precautions necessitate that we all think about new ways to safely and creatively find joy this season. Many caregivers have the added concern of a loved one who is no longer able to participate in celebrations and traditions as they once did. Here are some tips to help caregivers during the holidays and to keep the spirit of past traditions and memories alive.

Take the time to include your loved one in holiday preparations and plans. Simplify plans and provide tasks scaled to their abilities and interests. Have them help with selecting or even making gifts or writing cards for others. One caregiver shared, “My mother-in-law always enjoyed sending Christmas cards to her friends. While she was no longer able to write special in each card, she was still able to sign the cards and put the stamps on. Doing this together was enjoyable and gave us a chance to share memories about old friends.”

Special smells are often associated with December. Is this a time when the smells of baking cookies or other delicacies fill your home? Are there ways to have your loved one help with baking? What about the smells of pine or spruce trees? Perhaps a fresh tree in your living room is too much but can you have a simple table decoration? What about scented candles?

Consider how to share beloved traditions. A long-distance caregiver said, “Growing up, my mother displayed old decorations she had from Europe. My sister and I would put stockings at the foot of our beds, and when we awoke we found them filled with small gifts, walnuts, chocolate and an orange. My sister is now in a memory care unit in North Carolina and I am here in Alaska. I am coordinating with staff to recreate the decorations and the stocking at the end of her bed. Then I plan to have a Zoom call on Christmas and share in the memories with her.”

Reflect on the role music plays during the holiday season. Play preferred music and reminisce with old photo albums and family stories. This can be a sweet activity shared between your loved one and younger family members.

Many spiritual practices are associated with holidays. While large services or gatherings are not possible, consider ways you can bring some of the spirit into your home. It can be a rather amazing experience to share worship or reflection in silent meditation via Zoom.

Evaluate the environment where you will spend the holidays. Refer to current CDC and local department of health guidelines for social gatherings. If you are able to get together safely, keep things as familiar as possible. Be sure there is a quiet area for your loved one in advance.

Frequent breaks from any chaos, even joyful chaos, can prevent anxiety and exhaustion. Providing soft music and familiar items in the quiet area can help. Plan events during the day rather than night time to avoid ‘sundowning’. Keep any planned events simple and short in duration.

Plan for your loved one’s special dietary needs. Make sure the host is aware, or plan to bring your loved one’s meal and beverages. Bring a change of clothes because spills happen and being prepared can relieve a lot of worry.

Whether you are planning an in-person or virtual gathering, be sure to educate your family on how to best interact with your loved one. Remarks like “don’t you remember?” or “you just told me that” should be avoided. If your loved one may not remember people or connections, family should be prepared to introduce themselves. Share with all the importance of stepping into your loved one’s world rather than trying to return them to yours. Visiting past memories can be a joy for all.

This holiday season offers us an opportunity to slow down a little. Take advantage of the change in pace and take time to care for yourself. A healthy you means a happy holiday season for you and your loved one. We wish you a safe and joyous season. Happy Holidays!

Gay Wellman is an Educational Specialist with Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska. Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias by visiting or calling (800) 478-1080.