Alzheimer's Disease and Holiday Celebrations

There’s no escaping it: the holiday season is a stressful time for everyone. It’s even more challenging when you factor in a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

How do you celebrate the holidays without making things worse? To answer this question, we consulted Claire Merendino, R.N., an elder care coordinator at Bratton Law Group, a Life Care Planning Law Firm with offices in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

According to Claire, there is no substitute for good planning. “If an elderly loved one has cognitive impairment, it's important to create holiday plans that will minimize stress, not create more,” she advises. “And it’s not just the elderly person’s stress that needs to be minimized. It’s everyone’s.”

What else can you do? Claire offers these tips:

Simplify. The most important thing you can do is to scale back your plans. “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” cautions Claire. “Simplify your activities, your events, and especially your expectations.”

Keep celebration plans a secret. This seemingly counterintuitive action will pay unexpected benefits. “If loved ones live in a nursing home or memory care center and you’re planning to bring them home for a holiday celebration, don't prep them too far in advance,” Claire advises. “It can be overwhelming for them and they may ask about it over and over again.”

Identify a buddy. Find a friend who understands the disease to serve as a companion to the person with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. “Ask this person to stay with your loved one throughout the celebration,” Claire suggests. “This will have a calming influence.”

Designate a quiet zone. Holiday celebrations can be boisterous events with lots of noise, activity, and commotion, all of which can be tremendously stressful for older adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. “The goal is to minimize the potential for overstimulation and overwhelm,” advises Claire.

Have a driver on standby. If the holiday celebration is happening at your home, identify a person to serve as a driver in case your loved one wants to go home. “The host of any party is always busy entertaining guests, which creates a challenge if your elderly grandfather decides he wants to go home as you’re about to serve dessert,” counsels Claire.

Keep visits short. Two or three hours away from a familiar environment can be extremely disruptive for a person dealing with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. “Short and good visits are always preferable to long and stressful ones,” Claire notes.

Plan ahead, if possible. Make sure that those invited to your celebration understand the situation. “You might think that everyone knows, but that is often not the case,” says Claire. “Well-meaning relatives can say or do things that will make the situation much worse. Encourage everyone to avoid complicated conversations and make observations instead of asking questions.”

Keep things light. Holidays are intended to be a time of good cheer. This simple truth can get lost in the holiday chaos. It's important to be happy and to make the best of things. You can even use this time to create some fun new holiday traditions.

The familiar adage—it takes a village—is especially true when you’re caring for loved ones with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. “We can't do it all by ourselves, so we need to be able to accept help,” advises Claire. “With the right preparation, the holidays can be joyous for everyone.”