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Keeping With Tradition: Strategies for Successful Holidays when a Loved One Has Alzheimer’s or Dementia

Family traditions can be sacred rituals around the holiday season. When a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia starts to forget those traditions it may be time to downsize and focus on the ones that really matter. Here are six tips to create an atmosphere of joy for the entire family.

  1. Remain Flexible 

Holiday celebrations can be overwhelming, especially for someone living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Put your loved one’s best interest first by letting go of traditions that they may no longer be able to participate in. Some traditions will need to be altered or set aside to enjoy the holiday season with your loved one, so flexibility is key with whatever plans you organize. Instead of insisting that they remember certain memories or details use the holiday season as an opportunity to create new traditions that put the comfort of your loved one at the center.

  1. Stick to the Familiar 

The holidays are a great opportunity to share memories and learn about past family traditions. Ask other family members what was most important during the holidays when they were growing up. Even the smallest bit of new information can help you plan a holiday season that honors family traditions while also keeping your loved ones comfortable.

Leading up to the holiday season, involve family members experiencing memory loss in the planning process. Provide options with limited choices, such as, “Would you prefer a real tree or a fake tree?” When decorating, use familiar ornaments or holiday themed elements that they may recognize. You may tap into old memories by showing them physical items from their past. 

  1. Keep it Simple 

The holiday season can make anyone feel overwhelmed, which is why it’s smart to keep it simple for your loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia. A few carefully selected decorations can go a long way to brightening a room up and spreading that warm, holiday cheer. Invite your loved one to be an active participant in the decorating process: hanging their favorite ornaments, adding a decorative pillow, or picking out a wreath for their door. If your loved one enjoys walking, add a few twinkly string lights in their windows so that they can see the glow from outside when they’re getting some exercise. Even the smallest decorations can help create a festive, inviting space.

  1. Think About Safety

Keep safety in mind during the holiday season. Avoid decorations that could become tripping hazards like electrical cords or thick welcome mats. While some holiday decorations and observances typically include lit candles, reduce the risk of fire by opting for electric or battery-operated alternatives. Additionally, be conscious of the upcoming flu season by keeping your loved one’s space clean and off-limits to anyone with cold-like symptoms to avoid spreading germs. 

  1. Don’t Forget the Music!

Holiday carols and hymns provide a predictable soundtrack to holiday celebrations. Fortunately, music can reach a part of the brain often unaffected by Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. When planning your holiday playlist, take note of your loved one’s reactions and replay songs that they seem to connect with. Ask other family members what songs they remember from the holiday season. Sometimes, music can bring old memories to the front, allowing you to learn new things about your loved one’s past, and allowing them to reminisce and hold onto memories they thought they had forgotten. Above all else, music is a powerful tool for sharing the holiday spirit and enjoying each other’s company.

  1. Focus on Sentiment 

Remember that everything you’re doing comes from a space of caring, and that’s what matters most when spending time with a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Certain family traditions may not be what your loved one needs at this stage of their life, but remind yourself that the main objective is to stay connected, grow your relationship, and keep your loved ones comfortable.