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Alzheimer's disease and Family Holidays: Tips for Success

Alzheimer's disease and Family Holidays: Tips for Success

L. T. Force, Ph.D.


This time of the year can be stressful for families; including for persons living with Alzheimer's disease. With families planning holiday gatherings there are no guarantees the events will be stress free. However, the following strategies can be helpful in providing consistency, dignity and safety for all:


Begin all communication by first ensuring you are relaxed and are conveying you are relaxed. Reduce background noise and other distractions and stimuli. Ensure there is adequate lighting for the person with dementia or move the exchange to a brighter location. If the person with dementia usually wears glasses or a hearing aid, try to have the person use them. Speak in a slow, calm, respectful manner and keep the pitch of your voice low. Identify the person’s preferred sense (e.g., if the person received a flower, would her first reaction be to smell, touch, or look at it). Avoid speaking to the person with dementia like a child. Even with persons who have severe language problems never assume the person with dementia does not understand you. Never talk about the person with others as if the person with dementia is not there. Sit at the same eye level as the person with dementia to show that your attention is focused on him or her.

Understanding Behavior

Agitated and problem behaviors are an attempt by the individual to communicate. Something in the room or group home environment may be causing the behavior. Are you, or is someone else, doing something that bothers the person with dementia? Remember, the behavior is not the problem. Find and respond to the need. Agitated or problem behaviors often occur when an important basic need is not being met. Ask ’yes/no questions' to narrow down what is agitating the person with dementia. Try to interpret the person's gestures and other non-verbal signs. Try to look at the situation through the eyes of the person with dementia. Recalling what caused similar incidents in the past may be of help.

Find the Memory

​Persons with dementia connect more and more with their past - they may also revisit past conflicts and problems and this can cause agitation. Response strategies include listening for familiar names and events and then asking simple questions that encourage and assist the person with dementia to explain what is upsetting. If the behavior becomes agitated stay calm and this will be calming for the person with dementia. Speak in soothing tones and keep all body language non-threatening. Distract the person with dementia with a favorite activity (re-direction). Get help if there is a danger of injury to you or the person with dementia. Use a bright comfortable location. Use previously learned skills enjoyed in past. Involve many senses, preferred senses, use materials at hand and materials familiar to the person. A person with dementia may exhibit more problems with short-term memory vs. long-term memory. Use cues from the past, where the person may be familiar with, for example, playing music from an era they can identify with, discussion of world events from earlier days and stories of early family gatherings. Simple steps involving you and the person should be employed; above all encourage communication. Remember, just because the person has a diagnosis of dementia does not mean they don't have a past….or a sense of self.

Holidays are a time for families and friends to connect and celebrate. Don‘t arrive at the dinner table fearful, anxious or looking for: “everything that is wrong”. Enjoy this Holiday season. Enjoy the moment, the presence….and enjoy the strength and joy of family and friends. Come to the table with the: “mindset of celebration and looking for everything that’s right”. This might mean - before you sit at the table to take some time gathering yourself….breathing in-and-out and visualizing how privileged you are….and exhale….it’s going to be a long dinner!

For additional information or support please contact your local Alzheimer's Association.

Happy Holidays!


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