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Elderly woman dining with family during holidays

With the holidays at our doorstep, we look forward to celebrating with friends and family; those with dementia are often part of our inner circles and including them in our celebrations is important for them and for us.

Dementia can present with limitations in short- and long-term memory, communication, attention, handling change, and with a tendency to easily become confused and overwhelmed when there is too much pressure or stimulation. Here are some suggestions to make the holidays brighter for the person with cognitive disability and those who care for and about them.

• Keeping a familiar routine of meals, rest and activity will allow the person with dementia to look and feel their best and help them enjoy the increased activity of the holidays; have a quiet place for the loved one to go to if needed.

• Approach the person from the front, recognizing that some individuals have a limited visual field and/or hearing and may be startled if approached from the side or from behind.

• Use their name — and yours — rather than expecting them to remember you; it helps to remind them of how you know them: neighbor, grandson, sister, etc.

• Schedule visits and meals earlier in the day; avoid late dinner meals and activities to avoid the weariness and overstimulation that can cause late-day disorientation.

• Gather in smaller groups rather than large groups and spread out visits over a few days rather than all on the same day.

• In conversations, state, “I remember when we…” rather than asking, “Do you remember…”

• Talk about shared memories of holiday celebrations and traditions, tapping into long-term memories that may be intact.

• Get their attention before starting to talk with them, and be sure to allow time for the person to process the conversation; it may take 10-30 seconds for them to do so before they are able to engage in conversation.

• Involve children and give them some structure to help them relate to the person with dementia: make and hang ornaments or greeting cards, have them sing a song or dance, or have them or the elder read a story or look at pictures together.

• If conversation is difficult — or even if it isn’t — tell stories, sing traditional songs, look at pictures of past holiday gatherings; they may enjoy helping with or watching as decorations are put up, the table is set, cookies are decorated, etc.

• If religious services are part of your tradition, go to early or shorter services, perhaps those where children who also have short attention spans are the focus. And be sure they can see. If that is too difficult, perhaps watch a service on television or the internet.

• And finally, caregivers, put your own oxygen mask on first! Let people know what to expect, the best times to visit, and set some limits on time and the level of stimulation that the person with dementia can manage. A letter or a conversation prior to a visit can help avoid or minimize misunderstandings when the loved one with dementia cannot manage more stimulation.

For more information about enjoying the holidays, including gift suggestions, check out the Alzheimer’s Association website at The Alzheimer’s Association has a 24/7 helpline at 1-800-272-3900.

Connie Bauer is a member of the Missoula Coalition on Aging and Disability, and is an occupational therapist in private practice.

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