Dementia and the Holidays, How to Stay Safe and Happy


The holidays are a time for family; a time to mend fences, reconnect, and clink glasses of egg nog. If someone in your family suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s, you may also feel like the holidays are a time of extra stress and worry:

  • How will Grandma react if we have people over for a party?
  • Will my brother recognize his own children or grandchildren?
  • Is it safe to take Mom shopping with me?

Don’t let these worries dampen the magic of Christmas or Chanukah. Here are five useful precautions you can take to make sure your loved one stays safe and comfortable during this cheerful time of year.

Don’t Shop During Peak Hours

Those with mid-stage dementia often have a tendency of wandering off and becoming lost. This can be a scary scenario even in a relatively empty store or in your local neighborhood. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to find your family member at the mall or a huge department store packed with other holiday shoppers? Crowded stores can also make your family member feel more disoriented and increase the likelihood of your loved wandering and becoming lost.

If you decide to take your family member shopping, try to pick days and times when stores will be less crowded and chaotic. Shop during the week instead of the weekends, and consider shopping in the morning when many people will be at work.

Host Small, Intimate Gatherings

Help your loved one feel comfortable and loved by avoiding crowded and confusing environments. If you would like to host a holiday party in your home, consider inviting a small group this year of just close family members and friends whom your loved one will be more likely to recognize. A big, loud party filled with lots of celebrating guests could be confusing and upsetting to someone with dementia. Also, if not all guests realize that your loved one has dementia, misunderstandings and discomfort could result.

Assign a “Buddy”

The holidays are a busy time, and you might not always remember to keep an eye on your family member with dementia. This can be dangerous, especially if your loved one has a tendency to wander, or if you are cooking up a lot of delicious holiday treats on the stove and in the oven. You don’t have eight arms or eyes in the back of your head, so if you feel like you can’t keep a close watch on your loved one, assign them a “buddy” to watch over them. The buddy system is especially useful if you are hosting a party and need to look after your guests. Ask a sibling, your spouse, one of your children, or a close friend to be a buddy by regularly checking on your family member with dementia to make sure they are comfortable, having a good time, and haven’t decided to go exploring the neighborhood on their own.

Tell Stories

It can be hard to know how to relate to someone with dementia, especially someone who is a parent or grandparent. You are used to them being in charge, and now you have to take charge. The holidays are the perfect time to share old stories and reconnect with your family, including family members with dementia. Those with dementia tend to lose their most recent memories first but will often hang onto older, treasured memories for a long time. When you tell stories, you may be surprised by how much your family member remembers and how they light up and want to participate. It’s not uncommon for elders with dementia to get facts wrong when they re-tell stories. Don’t spend your time correcting every little detail or trying to tell the story the right way. Recognize this as an opportunity to share warmth and affection with your family member.

Invite Your Family Member to Participate

You aren’t the only one who may feel uncertain about how to interact with a loved one suffering from dementia. Your other family members, especially extended family members and friends, may not know what to say or how to act and may decide it’s easier just to ignore your family member. Resist the urge to cut your family member out just because it is hard to face their disease. It might be easier not to invite them to your party or have them over for Christmas or Hanukah dinner, but remember, your family member is still family. They still have a lot of memories and a lot of love to give. The more time you spend with them, the more comfortable you’ll feel. Celebrate your loved one for who they are in the present and what they can give now, not who they were and what they lost.

We think you’ll find that when you use these tips, your holidays can still be warm, safe, and happy. From all of us at Sunshine Care, we wish you and your family a very merry holiday season!

Have More Questions About Dementia Care?

The family members of those with dementia need love, care, and support too! We invite you to join us every month for “A Fireside Chat,” our support group for caregivers and families. At each meeting, we will answer questions, share stories, and lend support to each other!

RSVP for the next meeting.

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