Holidays can bring mixed feelings for the caregivers and their loved ones. summarizes these conflicting emotions in the following quote:

“For people who have experienced a big change, traditions can be a source of comfort–or a painful reminder of what they’ve lost.”

Why are holidays difficult for individuals with cognitive change? New sights, sounds and activities that can occur can be overstimulating and overwhelming. This can result in discomfort for the person experiencing dementia, and challenging situations for care partners. Modifying holiday traditions and managing unrealistic expectations can reduce stress for care partners, as well as individuals living with cognitive changes.

In our educational class, “Creating Dementia-friendly Holidays,” Dr. Miriam Galindo, PsyD, LCSW, MSN, RN, shared some helpful tips for care partners to keep things smooth during what can be a very hectic time of year. Here are five things you can do to minimize stress and make this holiday season a more peaceful affair!


1) Keep Expectations Realistic

Even in normal circumstances, holidays can stir up a lot of emotions for people. With the added stress of being a caregiver, the holiday season expectations can intensify. Don’t try to be a holiday hero and do everything yourself. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect!

As Dr. Galindo explained during her presentation, “Sometimes we are so busy and so stressed out that the joy is minimal…dementia can reboot our expectations to what is really important.”


2) Streamline Traditions

Focus your energy on one to two traditions that are the most meaningful to you and/or your loved one. It’s okay to put other traditions on hold for a while, especially ones that may be more time-consuming than others. Just because you are putting some on hold this year, or even for a few years, does not mean you will never be able to enjoy them again.


3) Build New Memories

As you may have already discovered, having a routine is often very important for a person living with dementia. Nonetheless, maintaining their routine can be made difficult with the various events and tasks of the holiday season. As much as possible, try to adjust the holiday schedule around the person’s existing routine. The less change they need to adapt to, the easier it will be for them to roll with the changes that will come. This can include seeing new faces they have not seen in awhile, going to new places, and maybe skipping other parts of their routine like attending a Day Center or partaking in other usual activities. 

Know that the ability to enjoy rituals can be preserved for a long time in a person with dementia. Enjoyment of music is also preserved through the end stages. With that in mind, here are some fun and simple ideas to try this year:

  • Put together a photo album of holidays past
  • Make simple holiday decorations
  • Enjoy a few video calls with family and friends
  • Bake cookies or treats, or light a holiday-scented candle
  • Watch classic holiday movies together
  • Sing carols together


4) Be Inclusive

Help others help you by telling them exactly what would be useful to you and your loved one. Perhaps someone else can take on organizing the family gathering, or order you grocery delivery. Maybe they can take your loved one for a short walk while you clean the house–or better yet, get some rest!

Tell friends and family what they should expect if they are seeing your loved one for the first time in a while. You can say something like, “When you come over for dinner, you may notice that Mom is not speaking much. Don’t take this personally, it isn’t because she is angry with you. I bet she will really enjoy it if you sit next to her and hold her hand and talk to her, but try not to ask her questions she may not remember the answers to.”


5) Assess Risks

Although we wish the pandemic was completely behind us, it’s necessary to be cautious, especially for our loved ones with cognitive changes, who may be more susceptible to getting sick. In addition to COVID, flu season is also upon us. Assess the level of risk that is acceptable for you and your loved one. Perhaps a smaller group gathering, or more virtual gatherings may still be appropriate this year. Don’t be afraid to say “no” and set boundaries that put you at ease.


The bottom line is that as a care partner, it’s okay to redefine what “success” looks like this holiday season. Success does not have to mean that you hosted a picture perfect large holiday dinner. It could mean takeout or delivery with a smaller group. It could mean spending a few meaningful hours with your loved one in their care residence. Perhaps this year you take a walk to look at neighborhood lights and then cuddle up to watch some holiday classics.

We hope you experience joyful moments with those you hold dear, and make new memories together. Even if your loved one may not remember all of the events of this holiday season, you will carry the memories for both of you.