Tips for Celebrating the Holidays with an Aging Loved One with Alzheimer’s

When Ruth first started becoming afflicted with the slowly growing dusk of Alzheimer’s, the holidays became more difficult for her family. A time when we usually ward off the long nights with lights and love became a fraught mystery, filled with tension and a feeling of mute frustration.

Celebrating the holidays with alzheimer'sWhen Ruth first started becoming afflicted with the slowly growing dusk of Alzheimer’s, the holidays became more difficult for her family. A time when we usually ward off the long nights with lights and love became a fraught mystery, filled with tension and a feeling of mute frustration.
The holidays were important to Ruth’s family, and when it seemed like she was slipping away from them, the love they had for her and each other overwhelmed itself and turned into something sadder.
That’s normal for families celebrating the holidays with someone with Alzheimer’s. After all, what are these gatherings other than times when we celebrate the day while taking joy in remembrances of other frosty, love-filled mornings? When someone has more and more trouble participating, it becomes difficult.  

It doesn’t have to be that way. While there isn’t any way to avoid the sadness Alzheimer’s can bring, the holidays can be managed and enjoyed. You and your family can make your loved one comfortable, while also making sure everyone else enjoys the time as well.
This isn’t about ignoring the problem or deciding not to address the elephant in the room. It’s about recognizing the reality and understanding that patience, tolerance, a sense of humor, and most of all, love, can be the greatest gift you can give.
Here are our tips for families celebrating the holidays with a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

Preparing for and Celebrating the Holidays with a Loved One with Alzheimer’s

The most important aspect of the holidays, no matter what, is planning. Who is allergic to what? Who wants what gift? Who sits where? Who gets which bed? The right planning makes the holidays go smoother. This is the same when a loved one has Alzheimer’s.
Especially in the early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s, the right amount of planning, care, and concern can make the days go seamlessly, and help ensure they’re filled with love and happiness for everyone.
Here are some tips to help you plan your holiday with a loved one with Alzheimer’s:

  • Involve your loved one in planning. During the early stages of Alzheimer’s, it is very important to involve your loved one in planning the holiday. They may be acutely aware of their condition during lucid moments and will want to celebrate in a meaningful way. The preparation will also help create events and activities that involve mental activity, which is important for people facing Alzheimer’s.
  • Find out what your aging loved one wants. What types of food would your aging loved one with Alzheimer’s like to eat? What decorations will make them happy? When you learn what will make them comfortable, you can avoid unpleasant surprises. Granted, there might not be consistency during later stages (what is required one day may be shocking and upsetting the next), but it is better to try to avoid unpleasant surprises as much as you can.
  • Prepare other guests. Whether you are traveling out of town (see tip No. 7) or hosting company, chances are you’ll see people who may not have seen your aging loved one in a year. They should be briefed in advance of any changes and be told that your loved one may be confused or have trouble following conversations. This prevents frustration on all sides and allows your guests to prepare to have patience.  
  • Plan thoughtful gifts. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t gift someone with Alzheimer’s power tools or anything that could be of danger to them. There are, however, thoughtful gifts that can be helpful to a person with Alzheimer’s, such as:
    1. Art classes
    2. Movement therapy classes
    3. Photo books (or digitizing their pictures to reduce clutter and make searching easier)
    4. CDs or digital playlist of their favorite music (don’t forget that music has also shown to revive personality buried by Alzheimer’s)
  • Plan comfortable events. We talked above about the elephant in the room, but make sure that isn’t a White Elephant. Don’t do guessing games or things that rely on short-term memory. Watch comforting seasonal movies or just have easy conversations. If the temperature is ok, get in some walks. Plan events that everyone can participate in so you don’t alienate anybody.
  • Prepare a quiet spot. Alzheimer’s can cause confusion, frustration, and even fear, especially in loud, rambunctious settings filled with overlapping conversations. Make sure there is a quiet room where your loved one can go to get some space, settle down, and become calm. Having that at the ready makes for smooth exits when you notice a general sense of flustering (see No. 9).
  • Try to make events as non-disruptive as possible. Routine is important for people with Alzheimer’s. Disruptions can be scary and confusing, and they can exacerbate the condition. Unfortunately, the holidays can be a disruption, but you can minimize that by planning ahead, not rushing things, and accommodating guests without turning a house upside down. Find arrangements that cause minimal interruptions. And, of course, involve your loved one in planning, so that they feel more prepared.
  • Make travel comfortable and calming. Sometimes, you have to travel, which is always a disruption. But there are ways to make it better. My relatives who took care of my elderly aunt with early-stage dementia started telling her months in advance about my wedding across the continent. When the time came to travel, she was ready. She had been prepping for a long time, and the idea of the wedding became a part of her. By minimizing surprises, you can maximize comfort.
  • Check in frequently. It is amazing what paying attention and asking, “Are you ok?” can do. Move in (politely) if a well-meaning guest is being difficult. (Think conversations like: “I’m Tommy. TOMMY. TOMMY. You remember, Al’s cousin’s daughter’s husband. You know Al. I’m TOMMY.”) Make sure you can get your aging loved one to a quiet spot if need be.
  • Take care of yourself. Remember that these are your holidays, too. Caregiver burnout—especially for caregivers with loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer’s—is a real thing. The holidays are already stressful, and this is an added challenge. Take the time to relax, laugh, and enjoy the season. You don’t do anyone any good if you are a ball of stress, nerves, and tension. While that’s understandable, do what you can to avoid it. It isn’t just for your loved one. It’s for you.

Creating a Joyful Holiday Season

The holidays are a time of memory. We might remember the freezing and exhilarating whiteness of old snowfalls. We may laugh and cry about past holidays gone by.
But the robbed memory of our loved ones doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the season. Every year, we make new stories to add to our collection. While this cruel disease may mean that this year will be lost to your loved one, the rest of you can add the memory of how, with patience, understanding, grace, and love, you created a holiday that made your aging loved one with Alzheimer’s as happy as possible.
At Institute on Aging, our mission is to provide the resources needed to help aging adults age at home, including those with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Some of these services include home care management, social day programs, and more. Contact us today to learn more.

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