Creating a Joyous Holiday for an Individual With Dementia

When someone in the family has dementia, two important facts need to be respected, particularly around the winter holidays:

We want to spend the time we can with our loved ones. Yet, people, noise and activity can easily overwhelm those with dementia.

From late November through the New Year, the days may be packed with holiday activities. For someone with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, this time of year can become stressful. A typical holiday gathering with the whole family might go something like this: Everyone is eating and drinking, laughing and talking – all at once. Some may be rehashing the same quarrel they’ve had for decades. However, a person with advanced dementia might be experiencing this festive holiday event quite differently from the rest of the family.

  • Who are all these people? Some look familiar, others not at all. What are their names? Are we related? Why are they here?
  • What is this person saying to me? It’s so noisy with people talking and background music, I can’t focus. They’re getting upset with me because I don’t understand them.
  • I’m physically uncomfortable but can no longer find the words to say so, or even understand what these uncomfortable feelings mean (such as I’m hungry, tired, thirsty or need to use the bathroom).
  • I sense other people’s discomfort with me. Why are they tense? Why are some people not talking or sitting with me? Did we have a fight? I can’t remember.
  • Why are we just sitting here? I’m ready for something else, but I don’t know what I want to do. I can’t seem to start, continue or finish any activity by myself.
  • Why is everyone so unhappy now? They’re yelling and fussing at me. I don’t know why my clothing and the chair are wet. I don’t know how that drink got spilled or the gravy boat ended up on the floor.
  • I want some peace and quiet. These folks are noisy; they joke, tease and argue. There’s so much activity everywhere. I don’t know how to ask to go to a quieter room or how to get there by myself.

It’s easy to see how the best intentions of caring families can go wrong if they’re holding the same types of holiday events they’ve had for years. Change is natural in life, and you may need to adjust your family traditions to fit the changes due to dementia. Remember, the most important thing about the holidays is being together and having shared experiences.