Dementia & the Holidays: Advice for Family Caregivers

Posted by Rachael Wonderlin on November 20, 2018
“Should we bring mom to the party? I feel like she’s going to get overwhelmed, but I’d feel so guilty if we did Christmas without her!”

Holidays can be stressful for everyone, but families who have a loved one living with dementia are even more likely to feel the anxiety. I’ve watched countless families devolve into bickering groups — everyone concerned about what to do regarding the upcoming holiday. Is it okay to leave the person with dementia out of the event? Should everyone go visit that person instead of bringing them to the party? What happens if their loved one forgets a couple names and feels embarrassed?

No one wants to leave their loved ones out, but there is always the fear that the individual may get overwhelmed or agitated when joining the family for Thanksgiving dinner. What if it’s difficult to get him back to his assisted living community at the end of the night? 

If there is one rule to follow, it’s this one: there is no one-size-fits-all way to cope with holiday parties and dementia. Instead, I think that the most helpful holiday advice for caregivers is to follow a “flowchart” method for making these decisions: 
  1. To begin, decide what type of person your loved one with dementia is. Do they like groups, or are they likely to get overwhelmed quickly? Keep this in mind as we go forward. 
  2. What stage of dementia is this person in? People in later stages should get more time-out breaks from the party scene, such as a quiet space to sit in every hour or so.
  3. Do they live in assisted living, at home, or somewhere else? Is it easy to join them for a party, or does it make more sense to take them to your house for dinner? Whatever the case, I suggest limiting the amount of time that the person with dementia is out and about to four hours or less. In my experience, families that shoot for all-day affairs usually end up with cranky loved ones at the end of the day. 
  4. No matter if you decide to bring the party to them, or bring them to the party, limit your own expectations for the day. Planning everything, minute to minute, may very well leave you feeling unsuccessful if things don’t pan out exactly as you hoped. For example, don’t task your loved one with dementia to set the entire table by themselves, and then be upset when it takes over an hour. 
  5. If they are coming to your place, reserve a spot in the house for down-time. Every hour or so, let the person living with dementia have some time to themselves watching TV or reading. This may not always be necessary, but many adults living with dementia become overwhelmed much quicker than we’d expect. 
  6. No matter where you decide to host the party, give your loved one a task to complete. Keep it simple, but make it important. Folding napkins for the table is a perfect example of a task that isn’t difficult, but does feel important and useful.
I always tell family caregivers, “Set your loved one up for success.” As long as you do your homework and plan ahead—without getting too far into the weeds of details—you are sure to have a successful evening. 

Rachael Wonderlin is a dementia care consultant, author, trainer, and community designer. She has a Master’s in Gerontology from UNC Greensboro, and owns Dementia By Day, LLC.