Caring for Those With Alzheimer's at the Holidays

Dec. 21, 2021

Holiday season. These two words bring up many images and memories of traditions and gatherings with family and friends.

For people and families dealing with memory and behavior changes due to Alzheimer’s disease, finding joy might be challenging — but it can be done. Although, there are some extra elements to keep in mind during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The keys to a positive holiday season are about managing expectations and planning early. While the hustle and bustle that is a common theme this time of year brings some stress for all of us, this stress can be constant for individuals and families dealing with dementia or cognitive impairment.

Instead of giving up on enjoying the holiday season, here are six adjustments you can make to your family traditions.

1. Take steps to keep your loved one safe from COVID-19

According to the Alzheimer's Association, dementia itself may not increase the risk of COVID-19, but dementia-related behaviors — such as forgetting to follow prevention measures, like hand washing — might. And cognitive impairment can worsen if someone with dementia gets ill with COVID-19.

If you live in the same home as your loved one, take steps to protect him or her by:

  • Getting vaccinated and getting a booster shot once eligible
  • Placing signs around your home encouraging hand washing and other preventive measures
  • Using curbside pickup or contactless delivery instead of in-person shopping
  • Avoiding crowds, especially in indoor public spaces
  • Having a plan if you get COVID-19 and can no longer provide care
  • Quarantining if you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last two weeks
  • Isolating immediately if you develop symptoms of COVID-19 and test positive

If you're planning to visit a loved one this holiday season, take steps to protect him or her by:

In-person visits with a vulnerable loved one always come with risks, but be sure to keep a close eye on the level of community spread in your area and adjust accordingly. Always err on the side of caution. This may even mean switching an in-person gathering to a virtual one.

2. Keep your loved one as involved as possible

If you live with your loved one, you can help provide a sense of purpose by involving him or her in your holiday planning and activities, such as:

  • Discussing gift selections
  • Opening cards together
  • Listening to holiday music
  • Asking for help with simple baking tasks

If you're planning a gathering and decide it's safest to do so virtually, many of the ideas above can be accomplished over a video call.

No matter how you spend time together, stay in the moment and try focusing on the memories you are making, rather than the outcome or perfect results.

3. Maintain a normal structure as much as possible

COVID-19 may change what "normal" looks like in many ways, but not all.

Even though you are busy, being consistent with medications, treatments and day programs will be better for your loved one and, ultimately, for you.

4. Choose decorations that are festive, yet safe

You can still create a beautifully decorated home during the holidays, accepting that the décor may be very different from years past. Make sure your loved one’s living space is safe. Lighted candles may be a hazard, and large blinking lights can cause disorientation.

5. Keep gatherings stress-free

If you're gathering with your loved one, take the necessary COVID-19 precautions and minimize both overstimulation and your own anxiety level, as this can transfer to your loved one.

Keep activities simple and alert your guests ahead of time about your own needs and wishes. Other tips for keeping the stress level down include:

  • Lessening the number of visitors
  • Simplifying the plan
  • Allowing a few days of relaxation before and after a large holiday gathering

6. Care for yourself, too

Make a list of the usual things you do during the holidays and decide which you want to keep in your plan — and which you don’t mind skipping.

Allow others to help you, and be clear in what your need for them to do. Include time away for yourself, and fill this time in ways that help you regain your energy.