5 Tips to Help Someone with Dementia Enjoy the Holidays

dementia holidays

Hosting the Holidays?

So you drew the short straw and everyone’s coming to your house this holiday season. Including all the siblings, cousins, grand-people and kids, you’ll have a house full of guests.

To be the “hostess with the most-ess,” as my mom use to say, if someone with memory issues or dementia will be there, the following recommendations are very important.

What should be a wonderful, festive, family event over an abundance of food, timeless traditions and reminiscing, can implode in seconds without careful planning. It’s not running out of mashed potatoes that will define the holiday as a success or a failure, but your loved one with dementia – agitated, confused and overwhelmed – that may.

Whether it’s your parent, uncle Joe or the usually sweet but addled neighbor lady next door, please consider these tips.

1.  Inform your guests. Sharing information with others that someone has confusion, memory issues and perhaps irritability is not disrespectful. It is out of genuine concern that you make your guests aware in advance as to what to expect from that person. Honest and thoughtful transparency is essential.

2.  Minimize the chaos. Most likely your holiday gathering will be bustling with activity.
If possible designate an area, ideally a separate room, where the more boisterous guests can gather – a finished basement is perfect but not an option for everyone – or conversely a quiet room for the person with dementia and at least one other person to engage with. They should not be sequestered alone.

From I Will Never Forget:
Mom couldn’t process what the recipe instructions were telling her to do. I had not observed this disconnection before. I quietly got out the cauliflower and helped her get started.

“If you cut the cauliflower into pieces Mom, I’ll start with the mushrooms.” Immediately I detected a sense of relief from her as if she had been rescued from the strangle hold of confusion.

She smiled and said, “Okay.”

While my mother hung out in the kitchen with me, everyone else gathered in the living room, by my design. One at a time, they stepped into the kitchen to acknowledge her.

3.  Control the Time: Holidays are often an open-house format. They may revolve around
a central time, like dinner on Thanksgiving, but some guests may arrive early and others stay late.

Unless they live with you, the person with dementia will probably do better if their visit is limited and not trapped there all day. This may require a designated driver to chauffeur them.

From I Will Never Forget:
After Christmas morning, my husband Joe headed out to get my mom.

When they returned Mom’s face lit up brightly when she saw her granddaughter Christie. Mom’s blue eyes still sparkled, and her smile exuded warmth and comfort.

I was concerned again about Mom transitioning back to her place, but she was exhausted. She smiled as I kissed her good night, and I said, “I’m glad you were with us for Christmas.” “I’m glad too …”

If they do live with you, be observant to the cues that your loved one is fading and ready for the couch or their bedroom.

4.  Let them help. Although Mom’s ability to read and process a recipe was long gone, she could do one job at a time: cut cauliflower or peel potatoes. It required a little thoughtful planning to keep her productively busy, not overwhelmed nor demeaned, but she was engaged and in the kitchen with me.

If the kitchen isn’t the best place for your confused guest, then arrange some activities for them to do elsewhere like fold napkins or sort silverware.

5.  Include them specifically. Your loved one with dementia will not be able to initiate self-soothing or self-engaging activities. Plan ahead to have a sing-a-long or drag out photo albums for them to peruse through. Have some conversation starters ready especially for someone else to initiate: “Mom, tell your niece about that train ride across the country you took in your 20s.” “Uncle Joe, tell me about that red convertible you drove in high school.” “Mrs. Davis, how did you meet Mr. Davis?”

From I Will Never Forget:
“Mom beamed when I asked her about her mom, my grandma Lillian Oberle.”

There’s no one size fits all approach to helping someone with memory issues be comfortable and calm through the crazy bustle of holiday events. It’s crucial first to admit they need special attention and plan ahead to keep the environment appropriate, whatever that means to them.

Everyone deserves to have a nice holiday but it’s on us to accommodate those who are struggling with dementia!


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About Elaine C.Pereira

Elaine retired in June 2010 as a school Occupational Therapist where she worked with special needs children. She lives in southeastern Michigan with her husband, Joe. Between them, they have five children — Joe has three sons and Elaine has twin daughters-and soon-to-be five grandchildren. Elaine has a Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy from Wayne State University. Elaine is the author of I Will Never Forget and she was inspired to tell her mother’s incredible story in part to help other caregivers coping with memory loss issues in their loved ones. I Will Never Forget

One thought on “5 Tips to Help Someone with Dementia Enjoy the Holidays

  1. Mike Good

    This must be a really difficult situation for both the host and the guests. One which makes the host want to isolate the person with dementia, and the guests to avoid the situation all together. But as we know, we want our loved ones to spend time together. As you point out, it starts with communication with the guests. If they don’t understand, things can go wrong fast. I’ve read about some caregivers who share updates via emails but I think a phone call is best. Many of us who have not been caregivers have misconceptions so we have fear that we will be uncomfortable or do something wrong.


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