When your loved one is living with dementia, the holidays are bound to change. While this can feel very sad and like a loss, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. With each stage, consider creating new traditions or modifying old ones in a way that allows you to meet your loved one right where they are. My mom was always the center of our holiday celebrations. For as long as I remembered, she prepared a smaller version of the Italian Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. She made it look so effortless - I think she could have whipped up that beautiful spread in her sleep! The last year she made that meal is etched in my mind forever because it was an astounding moment of enlightenment. Just before everyone arrived at the house, I realized she only had a fraction of the food it would take to feed all the guests. She was out of sorts and it just wasn’t coming together. We quickly improvised as best we could, but at that point I knew her memory issues were much worse than I had fathomed, and the holidays would never be the same. Beginning the following year, our energy went into making Christmas the best it could be given this new reality.
Perhaps baking cookies with your mother was part of every Christmas for as far back as you can remember. While she may no longer be able to follow a recipe or use the mixer, this activity can be adapted in many ways depending on what she IS able to do.
For instance, can you measure out the ingredients and let her pour each one into the mixing bowl? Can she spoon the batter onto a baking sheet? Another alternative is for you to bake the cookies in advance and have her help decorate or arrange them on a serving tray. If she is at a more advanced stage, consider sitting together and thumbing through one of her favorite cookbooks, her recipe cards, or a holiday cooking magazine filled with colorful images.
Many holiday activities have the potential to trigger fond memories. Below is a list of other ideas that may encourage reminiscing. Relax, maintain reasonable expectations, and keep things simple. It’s very important to follow your loved one’s lead; if he or she shows signs of agitation, set the activity aside and try again later. The key is focusing on what they can do and meeting them where they are. By doing so, you’ll connect in beautiful ways, perhaps on a level deeper than you could have imagined possible.
While the holidays will never be the same as they once were, they are what we make them. The house doesn’t have to be spotless, the meal doesn’t have to look like something served in a 5-star restaurant, and you don’t need extravagant presents under the tree. Time and love are the best gifts you can give. These are moments you’ll never have again - treasure them. Happy Holidays to you and yours!
Holiday-specific activities to encourage reminiscing
- Sort Christmas tree ornaments
- Trim the tree
- Look at Christmas cards
- Decorate a gingerbread house (hint: use a simple store bought kit)
- Decorate holiday cookies
- Arrange cookies on a serving tray
- Look through old cookbooks or recipe cards
- Prepare traditional holiday dishes together
- Create a holiday centerpiece (hint: use Pinterest for inspiration)
- Look at photos from past holidays
- Help wrap gifts (hint: use gift bags)
- Create a holiday collage using pictures from magazines
- Paint a holiday scene with watercolors
- Flip through holiday magazines or coffee table books
- Sing or listen to Christmas carols
- Watch classic holiday movies
- Enjoy a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows
- String popcorn or make paper chains from construction paper
- Work a holiday-themed jigsaw puzzle (hint: look for dementia-specific holiday-themed puzzles)
- Interview your loved one. Ask simple questions about his or her life to prompt reminiscing. Be sure to record your interview so it can be treasured for years to come.
In addition, here are some good indoor activities for the winter months and all year ‘round. Many of them can be accomplished with items you already have around the house.
Activities for Year ‘Round
Sort & Organize
- Coins, buttons, beads, marbles, or multi-colored vase-filler pebbles
- Macaroni in various shapes
- Hardware – nuts, bolts, and washers
- Wooden blocks in various shapes (be sure edges are smooth)
- Scrabble or Bananagram letters, playing cards, or dominos
Around the house
- Arrange fresh cut or silk flowers
- Fold towels
- Help set/clear the table
- Watch birds visit a feeder placed near a window
- Visit with a pet
- Play soft music or recordings of nature sounds
- Watch a relaxing nature-themed DVD
- Warm a favorite blanket in the dryer or turn on an electric throw
- Dab lavender essential oil on pulse points or diffuse into the air
Pampering – A Mini Spa Day
- Hand or foot massage with lotion
Get the Creative Juices Flowing
- Modeling clay or Play-dough
- Watercolor paints
- Coloring books specifically designed for people with AD
Books & Magazines
- Coffee table books or magazines full of colorful images (ideas: classic cars, animals, babies, scenic, other things specific to a favorite hobby or interest)
- Audio books
- Play era-specific music
- Watch a classic musical (The Sound of Music, Annie, The Music Man, My Fair Lady)
- Play rhythm instruments – small drum, maracas, tambourine
Movies & Television
- Classic movies (Singin’ in the Rain, An Affair to Remember, The Philadelphia Story, Casablanca, The African Queen, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris)
- Classic television (Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Jackie Gleason, The Honeymooners, American Bandstand, Carol Burnett)
Games and Other Fun Activities
- Jigsaw puzzles or Puzzles to Remember (specifically designed for people living with dementia)
- Bean bag toss
- Word finds (consider making your own to match your loved one’s ability level)
Ann Napoletan is Founder of Marilyn's Legacy, dedicated to increasing Alzheimer's awareness and raising funds to fight this disease and support caregivers. She is also the founding moderator of the UsAgainstAlzheimer's Caregiver Support Group.