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Caregiver Hints for the Holidays

If you’re the least bit observant, you’ve probably noticed that it’s the most wonderful time of the year.  Or at least that’s what the advertisers on Madison Avenue would like us to believe.  I imagine, for the most part, the holiday season is a merry time for most.  It’s a traditional end-of-the-year pause for religious and spiritual renewal, family get-togethers, gifting, and maybe most importantly – food!

As meaningful and enriching the holiday season can be for many of us, it can also be a challenging time as well, particularly for family caregivers caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia.  Holiday rituals can add extra demands on caregivers and confuse cognitively impaired patients who are likely dependent on their reassuring daily routines.  Finding a balance between traditional holiday activities while also attending to the necessities of a loved one with dementia and one’s own personal needs can be daunting, but doable. 

Dementia Caregivers and the Holiday Season

Family caregivers have shared numerous holiday war stories with me over the years but tis the season for a happy one here.  I once worked with a woman in her mid-seventies who was caring for her husband in the middle stages of dementia.  This man was extremely depressed as a result of his cognitive decline and many days slept more hours than not.  He frequently confused his wife, to her despair, with his mother.  Together they had a family of six and my client was dreading the pressures of the holiday season.  She felt it her duty to carry on the many family traditions, including decking the halls, trimming the tree, shopping for and wrapping the presents for nearly one dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and whipping up gourmet meals for just as many.  Her proverbial shoulders, she reported, were likely to give out.  Then something magical happened. 

In preparation for the holiday, my client began to pull out decorations, including lights, wreaths, dishes, and her venerable village scene.  She also came across an unused pumpkin spiced candle that she quickly lit to fill the house with holiday cheer.  Within minutes, her husband was awake and moving about the home, alert and invigorated.  My client was awestruck.  Somehow, her husband who had been depressed and anhedonic for the better part of the year, was suddenly motivated and full of, dare she say it, joy?  And so for a few hours at least, the two of them reminisced about holidays of the past and enjoyed a real moment of intimacy together.  The moment, of course, didn’t last forever.  But no moment does. 

Powerful Memories Attached to the Holidays

The anecdotal and empirical evidence surrounding olfactory senses – taste, smell and sound – and their utility in caring for a person with dementia, is well documented in the scholarly literature.  The story detailed above is one example of hundreds that I’ve heard over my career to exemplify the power of these reptilian senses.  Some of our most powerful memories are attached to seasonal and religious music and the tastes and scents of the holidays.  My advice is to use this to your advantage during this time of year.  Bake your loved one’s favorite pie, play his or her favorite songs, and keep the chestnuts roasting on an open fire – or at least burn a candle that smells like it. 

Yes, the holidays can be overwhelming for people with memory loss because of the mass confusion of the season – unfamiliar faces, numerous distractions, and interference with the daily routine.  From my perspective, managing confusion is one of the preeminent concerns of the family caregiver.  If confusion is managed then too are the more challenging behaviors associated with moderate to late-stage dementia. 

dementia care

Tips to Manage Holiday Confusion

The following is a list of tips to manage confusion during the holidays adapted from Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles (www.alzheimersla.org):

  • Try to avoid situations that may confuse your loved one, including large crowds and unfamiliar places. 
  • Make sure you prepare memory tools to distract and reassure your loved one if he or she becomes overwhelmed, including photo albums, television shows, or a favorite activity.
  • Limit the number of visitors to your home at any given time.  You may want to have several smaller events than a singular large one.
  • Allow your loved one to participate in activities that he or she will feel successful at.  Include them in preparation as much as possible within the context of their cognitive and physical ability.
  • It’s ok to say no. It’s the most important word in the English language the one we often learn first.  You don’t have to do it all.
  • Prepare visitors for your loved one’s memory loss and explain the meaningfulness of the moment may matter more than what’s remembered.
  • Take plenty of time to rest.  It’s ok to adapt your holiday traditions to your current emotional and physical capacity as a caregiver.

For more holiday caregiving tips, you can visit the Alzheimer’s Association website at www.alz.org. 

Free Monthly Workshop

Don’t forget my free monthly workshop on caring for a loved one with dementia is coming up on January 5th.  I’ll review what you can expect as the disease progresses, how to communicate effectively with individuals who are cognitively impaired, how to manage challenging behaviors and resistance to care, and most importantly, how to care for self. 

Feel free to email me at  for more information.

Wishing you all peace and goodwill this holiday season.