Holidays and Alzheimer's

Aah, the holidays. When families and friends gather to enjoy each other, enjoy lots of food, share memories and often make a lot of noise. If you’re the host, you’re probably already stressed about preparing enough food to everyone’s liking, making your home “presentable,” and ensuring there’s enough space for all of your guests.

As if that’s not enough to worry about, having a loved one with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive decline at the celebration can add a different layer of stress and requires careful consideration. Will children running around cause an emotional shift? Will the noise level create confusion? Will your loved one say things that aren’t appropriate?

Here are some tips to help you get through the holidays with a little less stress and a bit more ease when it comes to interacting with someone with Alzheimer’s.

Before the celebration

Identify a family member or friend who can serve as a companion or “buddy” and check in regularly to make sure the individual is comfortable throughout the gathering. This person can pick up your loved one at home (and drop him/her off at the end of the celebration, or earlier if needed) and make sure necessary supplies are packed, including medication and a change of clothes in case of an accident.

It’s prudent to brief other guests about effective communication, since people who have dementia can be easily distracted or upset, may not be able to communicate well and may even withdraw.

Some effective communication strategies, include:

  • looking the individual directly when speaking to him/her
  • speaking slowly
  • being patient
  • introducing themselves to remind the individual who they are
  • not arguing if the individual says something they know isn’t true
  • utilizing active listening

For more tips on effective communication, visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s Communication and Alzheimer’s page.

Finally, encourage your guests to focus on the significance and meaning of the holidays rather than on what your loved one may or may not remember.

We’re all in this together

If the noise level is too loud and causes anxiety or confusion, it might be appropriate for the designated buddy to take your loved one on a short walk or to another room where it’s quiet.

Words aren’t always necessary. Holding your loved one’s hand speaks volumes, and sensory stimulation can, according to, “evoke positive feelings” relative to the five senses. Sensory stimulation can involve going outside, giving a hand massage, reading out loud and more. Involve a child in the project by gathering seasonal sensory items such as crunchy leaves, cinnamon sticks, woolen mittens, pine cones or a balsam scented sachet, ribbon, etc. Be creative and have fun with this by sharing each item and talking about what comes to mind. It’s a great way to engage everyone, including someone with Alzheimer’s.

Rather than seat your loved one in the midst of loud conversations, energetic children, a blaring TV or in the middle of the kitchen activity, identify an activity that will keep him/her peacefully occupied until it’s time to eat. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends some of the following: making a memory book or looking through a family photo album, icing cookies; or simply listening to his/her favorite music. Helping to set the holiday table can give someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia a sense of purpose, as can decorating a wreath.

Let’s eat

First, consider scheduling the meal earlier in the day to avoid potential sundowning. Around the table, there are often multiple conversations happening at the same time. When speaking to an individual with Alzheimer’s, look directly at him/her, and don’t try to correct them. That will only frustrate both of you and could cause the individual to withdraw or become frustrated.

Some people with dementia experience a change in their sense of taste and smell. This can cause them to change their eating behaviors. Try to prepare a meal you know your loved one will enjoy, but make sure it has essential vitamins and minerals to help maintain good health. The Food, Eating and Alzheimer’s section of the Alzheimer’s Association website offers some excellent tips for meal planning.


As mentioned earlier, sensory stimulation can evoke positive memories and feelings for someone with Alzheimer’s. These memories can be used as a guide for gift-giving, too. Consider creating a musical playlist for your loved one. The music can evoke memories of dancing, a special moment in time and can foster conversation and create peace for the individual. Another gift idea is a photo album. Use your creativity to identify the people and places in the photos. Other gift ideas, courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association, include scented lotion, a soft blanket or a bathrobe in a favorite color. Other ideas include a bird feeder, gift cards to the local salon, home care agency or other supportive service that will keep your loved one safe and engaged when not with family and friends.

But what about me?

Our blog about Alzheimer’s and the holidays wouldn’t be complete without addressing the very important needs of family caregivers. By now, many of us who have been or are currently serving as caregivers, have read about the importance of self-care. During the already-stressful holidays, that self-care is even more critical.

So, caregivers, here are some ideas for you to minimize your own stress and make the holidays less chaotic for you:

  • When purchasing gifts for your family, give them a sense of your budget and ask them to send you a list of what they might like to receive. Not only does this take the guessing out of the game for you, but your family members will be grateful to receive something they actually want!
  • Book some time for a massage. (Even better: ask one of your own family members to book it for you as an early holiday gift so that you can take a break from your own responsibilities.)
  • Ask for reinforcement. There’s nothing wrong with asking a friend, family member or even a trusted home care partner to help take caregiving responsibilities off of your list while you focus on you, your home and/or your celebration.
  • Holidays are a time for making memories. Get out a journal and document the things you love about your family, your holiday celebration and the things for which you are grateful. This kind of exercise will help to put your stress in perspective.
  • Read a book to escape. Why? This quote says it all: “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.”

With the proper planning, effective tools and the appropriate help, the holidays can be the most wonderful time of year. Just make sure you make time for you.

Lauren Schiffman
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