Banner Health Services  

How to survive holidays with memory loss

Jan Dougherty  

Jan Dougherty, RN, MS, is director of family and community services at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, a nonprofit organization supported by donations from the community.

Question: What can our family do to make holidays special when we have a parent with memory loss? 

Answer: Across the country, people gather to share a meal and to create memories that will last a lifetime. Those of us with family members who suffer from memory loss often agonize about how to include members with dementia. The secret to successful holidays is to keep them simple. Many family members feel elaborate preparations, large crowds and multiple generations make for great memories, however, the person with dementia will probably enjoy simpler dinners and gatherings.

Here are some basic ingredients to create a more successful holiday celebration.

Before dinner:

  • Make sure the person is well-rested. Fatigue can occur in 90 minutes or less, so a person may do better attending only the meal, rather than the whole day.
  • Create a place to rest, such as a guest room or another calming place they can use to leave the larger group.
  • Allow the person who has prepared the elaborate dinner in the past to help with minor preparations such as peeling, mixing or mashing.
  • Be aware people with dementia are highly susceptible to heightened stimuli, especially groups and noise.

During dinner:

  • If the person asks to leave early, take them home or to a place to rest. Do not delay the person’s exit as it may cause confusion or agitation for up to 36 hours.
  • Avoid alcohol intake, especially if the person is on a mood-modifying medication. A toast is fine.
  • All people attending the gathering must need to accept what the person with dementia says and perceives. Attempts to clarify “mistaken memories” will only serve to produce anxiety, worry or anger.

Holiday gift ideas great for people with dementia include: prepared foods or food baskets, warm slippers, picture books or gift certificates for restaurants or for their care partners.

Page Last Modified: 11/15/2010
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