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We normally think of the holiday season as a time full of love, family, and cheer — but it can also carry stress, loneliness, and sadness. Especially in a pandemic like we face now, families may find these feelings heightened as we’re asked to separate and keep distance this holiday season. Elder adults with dementia may be particularly vulnerable to these dark feelings as all sense of normalcy is stripped from this year’s celebrations (whether or not they have a clear understanding of why it’s happening). This article will explore ways to support and engage loved ones with dementia through this unusual holiday season. 

How to Support Loved Ones with Dementia During the Holidays

There are many things about the holidays that are difficult for those with dementia and their family caregivers. It’s a season that, under the best of circumstances, creates added stress and demands on a caregiver’s time. In California (along with most places in the world), the holidays this year will come with a new level of scrutiny and restriction. Here’s how to support loved ones with dementia this holiday season in California:

Review the California regulations for holidays.
The state of California has put out a list of precautions they recommend for this year’s holiday season with safety top of mind. This list includes things like quarantine recommendations, event guidance, and more. 

It’s also worth reviewing your county’s risk tier to see what is or is not allowed in your area. With a high-risk individual in your care, you know better than most that it’s worth acting with an abundance of caution.

Adjust expectations
Before the holidays begin, give them a bit of forethought. 

If you’re planning to keep away from gatherings this year due to the pandemic, let your family or friends know your situation and accordingly, what to expect. This season is stressful for caregivers even without a pandemic in the mix. Others should respect your choices on this matter.

If you are headed to an intimate gathering while caring for someone with dementia this year, you may be able to prevent a few uncomfortable and predictable situations by taking preventative action. Here are some examples: 

  • Request everyone wear a name tag.
  • Designate a place for the person living with dementia to rest. Have a pre-designated spot for your loved one to separate themselves if they start to feel overwhelmed.
  • Make sure everyone understands the safety precautions you’re taking and respects them (no hugging, wearing masks, staying outside, disposable/non-shareable utensils, etc.).

You are under no obligation to live up to expectations set by someone else. This year especially, stick to what you and your loved one can manage safely and comfortably. This may mean fewer or smaller (or no) gatherings, and that is perfectly acceptable. No one should expect you to manage or attend every gathering or event. Give yourself permission to say no.

Call and prepare others for any changes in behavior for the person living with dementia. Someone with early-stage dementia may not show signs of behavioral change, but someone with late-stage dementia is a different story. It can be helpful to let others know what to expect and how best to deal with it. Examples of things you can share include:

  • If they repeat themselves or ask a question multiple times, it’s best to be calm and patient, not interrupt or correct, and to let them finish their sentence or story.
  • Remind them that erratic or unusual behavior is possible and the types of things that may occur.
  • Send an updated photo of the person living with dementia if his/her appearance has changed since others last saw them.
  • If their memory is starting to erase family or friends they cherish, remind others that it is the disease, not the person. Setting the expectation accordingly will help them emotionally come to terms with changes and avoid some of the shock in person.

Celebrate at a Distance.
There are many ways to keep the person living with dementia included in holiday festivities without their physical presence at gatherings.

  • Ask that any baked or cooked goods be dropped off for them to enjoy.
  • Arrange a video chat or phone call during any events and let them be a virtual party attendee.
  • Walk or drive around the neighborhood to look at holiday lights and displays.
  • Watch holiday movies and decorate with simple decor around the house.
  • Let them watch home videos or look through photo albums of previous holiday celebrations.
  • Host a drive-by holiday celebration and let loved ones drive along at a safe distance to say hello and make your loved one feel special.
  • Bake, decorate, or cook a special/traditional holiday dish together.

Closing Thoughts

No matter how you choose to celebrate the holidays this year, it’s important to remember to care for yourself too. Caregiving for a loved one with dementia in any season is stressful, but piling on the holidays and a pandemic is unprecedentedly so. Remember to set your boundaries where you feel most safe and comfortable. This season is meant for joy and love and is best celebrated with that as the central focus. Give yourself permission cut out anything else that feels unnecessary without guilt.

If you feel overwhelmed or like you could use a bit of support, CRC is here for you. Eleven nonprofit Caregiver Resource Centers (CRCs) throughout the state of California each year serve hundreds of families and caregivers of adults affected by chronic health conditions. Click here to find your local center. We wish you a safe, healthy, and happy holiday season full of joy and laughter.

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