How do we handle the holidays when a loved one has dementia?

by Aging & Elderly, Holidays, Wisdom, Wisdom Podcasts1 comment

Holidays are memory days.  But not for people with dementia.

“Do you remember the year the tree fell over…when the cousins stayed for all eight days…when Santa forgot to eat the cookies and the kids cried…”

Holidays, especially the Christmas holiday, are a tapestry woven with memories.  So what happens when your mom or dad or loved one has lost those memories and you  want to spend time with them.  How are we to handle the holidays when a loved one has dementia?  For wisdom on this subject I went to where Beth gives us 4 tips.

Here are some tips to help you, whether you will be with this person for one hour or off and on for several days.

1. Be patient and smile. You will have to draw on the love you have always had for this person to get through the hours.  Remember the special and interesting times you have spent with that person, and hold those in your mind as you visit.  You will have to repeat yourself so you need to be patient.  You will have to clarify things and as you do realize that the clarification might not mean a thing.  But the gentleness of your voice or the kindness of your posture as you lean toward this person explaining, will mean something.  I remember  in my own case, when my friend Marianne had dementia, and it was difficult visiting her until I remembered Jesus words, “When you do it to the least of these you do it unto me.”  So when I was being kind and loving toward Marianne it helped to know that at the same time in some mysterious way I was also caring and loving Jesus.  That thought helped me be patient and kind and yes, I did have a smile.

2. Plan ahead, consider what your loved one can tolerate. What you do during the holidays with your loved one who suffers from dementia depends on the extent of the illness.  Last year we took my mother to our favorite Christmas Eve bistro in her wheelchair.  Never again.  She was unhappy, the place was too noisy and she immediately wanted to go back to her senior living facility.  So weigh your options.  Maybe it’s better to keep your loved one in her comfortable place where she feels safe…  Stay with her for a number of hours, and then go out and celebrate on your own.

3. Bring gifts. Gifts should be tactile or arouse the senses.  Holiday foods and sweets are always a good choice, if your loved one can tolerate them.  Lotions with citrus scents, warm and soft shawls, socks or sweaters are other good ideas, because  the elderly are almost always cold.  Don’t forget a gift for the caregivers who take care of your loved ones.  Click here for a list of gift ideas for the elderly.

4. Create your own memories.  Even though your mother, father or loved one will not remember that you were there bringing gifts and loving them, hold this memory in your own heart.  Know that your acts of love and kindness toward this person are appreciated IN THE MOMENT.  You are making a difference for that person IN THE MOMENT.  And that’s a memory that you can be proud of–you made a difference for someone with dementia.

I remember a professional caregiver told me that it is important to keep visiting a person with dementia even when they cannot respond.  She said it was like going to a wonderful movie that is  heartwarming, encouraging and positive and you walk out and you feel good about yourself and the world. That feeling will linger for several days.  That is what it is like for a person with dementia when you visit, they can feel your kindness and love that generates inside and makes them feel good.  They can’t put those feelings into words for you, but they are there.

So reach out not only at Christmas time, but all through the year to those who have dementia.  You will be blessed and so will they.

Photo Credit: Nate Grigg



Karen Mulder

Karen Mulder

Karen Mulder is the founder of the Wisdom of the Wounded ministry. She lives in Holland, Michigan with her husband Larry.

1 Comment

  1. dementia

    For persons with dementia, they may feel a special sense of loss during the holidays. So be prepared for changes in person’s behavior and think about how they might be feeling and spend some time listening and offer reassurance.

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