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Adjusting holiday activities for a loved one with dementia

“Let’s Try it This Way Now, Mom”: Dementia and Holiday Activities

For those who celebrate Christmas, the holidays can be full of fun family activities. Many of them are traditions; things you’ve always done and enjoy doing year after year. It may be as simple as decorating your tree or putting up lights and other decorations. Perhaps it’s taking a stroll in the snow while enjoying the cold, crisp air.

Regardless of how you have traditionally celebrated the holidays, when a loved one has dementia you may soon discover that the things they did last year may now be too strenuous or require too much cognitive ability to do this year. Needless to say, that can be a difficult realization to handle.

It doesn’t, however, mean you can’t still enjoy the holidays and engage in meaningful activities as a family.

Becoming more cognizant of how your loved one’s abilities have changed will help you adjust old activities or discover new ones that are less taxing and yet also enjoyable. Here are some things to consider as we approach Christmas week:

  • What are your traditions? List out all the traditions you have enjoyed with your loved one. Now look at each with an eye towards simplifying it to make it easier and more enjoyable for them. Keep in mind that there may be some you will have to replace altogether.
  • Make sure you’re up to date on your loved one’s physical and cognitive changes. As you know, dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease, involve declining physical abilities as well as cognitive issues. What does that mean? It may mean that something once so easy, such as decorating the Christmas tree, can become physically challenging.   
  • Keep your expectations low. If baking holiday cookies was one of mom’s favorite things to do, don’t expect her to be able to roll the dough perfectly or even use a cookie cutter. Focus instead on keeping the project simple. Maybe she is content in simply taking a finger full of dough and dropping it on the cookie sheet. Don’t try to push her. Remember it is the process that can be just as pleasing as the finished product.
  • Try something completely new. Consider adding a new tradition, such as taking an evening drive to look at lights or sitting down and looking through all your Christmas cards together. Instead of decorating a large tree, consider a small tabletop tree which is easier to decorate and less taxing to move around.

If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, you can visit the Alzheimer’s Association website, which has plenty of ideas and activities geared towards individuals with dementia.

Above all, try not to expect too much of yourself or your loved one as you substitute new activities for old familiar ones. If an activity is clearly not enjoyable, don’t persist. Let your loved one’s behavior be your guide. Switch to another activity or take some time out to rest. Taking it slowly will enable both you and your loved one to discover some new activities that can be just as enjoyable and memorable as the old ones.