The Holidays and Alzheimer’s

The holidays are often filled with sharing, laughter, and memories, but they can also bring stress, disappointment, or sadness. A person living with Alzheimer’s may feel a special sense of loss during the holidays because of the changes he or she has experienced. Caregivers may feel overwhelmed by maintaining traditions while providing care and adhering to safety precautions. Below are tips and ideas for safely enjoying time with family and friends during the holidays.

Adjust expectations

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  • Arrange for a group discussion via telephone, video call, messaging app or email for family and friends to discuss holiday celebrations in advance. Make sure that everyone understands your caregiving situation and the safety precautions you’re taking to help keep your loved one healthy.
  • Communicate realistic expectations about what you can and cannot do. Sometimes this can create a sense of loss if you have to give up a role you always had, such as making the turkey, brisket or sweet potato pie, but think of it as a chance for another family member to start a new tradition.
  • A conversation in advance is also a great time to let others know about any changes they might see in the person living with dementia. Read more about how to familiarize others with the situation during the holidays.
  • Give yourself permission to do only what you can reasonably and safely manage — this may mean much smaller and more casual gatherings, if at all. No one should expect you to maintain every holiday tradition or event.
  • Some people living with Alzheimer’s become confused or agitated in the evenings (sundowning). Consider celebrating earlier in the day to work around this.

Connect through technology

If you cannot visit in person, you can still connect over the holidays.

  • Use video call software like Zoom or Skype to gather virtually. Since it can be difficult to have conversations with larger groups over video, adding some structure to the call can help. Play a trivia game, sing seasonal songs or share pictures from past gatherings.
  • Use video to capture and digitally send special moments, such as children opening gifts.
  • Plan a video call to cook or bake a special recipe together.
  • Record and send a “video holiday card” that includes personalized messages.
  • Schedule a time to watch a favorite holiday movie together from separate homes. Talk on the phone, text or video chat while you watch.
  • If your loved one struggles with technology, ask a primary caregiver — or staff in an assisted living community — if they can help facilitate a video call. If that’s not possible, connecting with a simple phone call goes a long way toward feeling together on the holidays.
  • Cross talk or simultaneous conversations can be challenging for people living with dementia or people with hearing impairments, so consider this when planning.

Familiarize others with the situation

The holidays are full of emotions, so it can help to let friends and family members know what to expect. If the person is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, relatives and friends might not notice any changes. But the person living with dementia may have trouble following conversations or tend to repeat things. If the person is in the middle or late stages of Alzheimer’s, there may be significant changes in cognitive abilities since their last interactions with some family members.These changes can be a shock and hard to accept. Make sure friends and family understand that changes in behavior and memory are caused by the disease and not the person. People can help with communication by being patient, not interrupting or correcting, and giving the person time to finish his or her thoughts. If the person cannot communicate clearly, respond to their tone.You may find this easier to share changes in a letter or email that can be sent to multiple recipients. Here is an example:“I’m writing to let you know how things are going at our house. While we’re looking forward to the holidays, we thought it might be helpful if you understood our current situation in advance.You may notice that ___ has changed since you last saw him/her. Among the changes you may notice are ___. I’ve enclosed a picture so you know how ___ looks now. Because ___ sometimes has problems remembering and thinking clearly, his/her behavior is a little unpredictable.Please understand that ___ may not remember who you are and may confuse you with someone else. Please don’t feel offended by this. He/she appreciates your time with us and so do we. Please treat ___ as you would any person. A warm smile will be appreciated more than you know. Here are some resources on communicating with somebody with dementia.We would ask that you call when you’re nearby so we can prepare for your arrival. With your help and support, we can create a holiday memory that we’ll all treasure.”Alzheimer’s Association 12/23