How to Engage a Loved One with Dementia During the Holidays

During the hustle and bustle of holiday gatherings, family members with dementia are often left out on the sidelines. This can leave them feeling disconnected or disoriented, and can potentially create disruptive behavior.

“The holidays can be an especially stressful or lonely time for people who have dementia,” notes Andrea Korsunsky, Director of Seniors At Home’s Center for Dementia Care. The best way to ease that stress, she says, is to facilitate meaningful interactions and create authentic connections with loved ones experiencing memory loss.

“We help families learn specific ways to adapt their approach to engage and connect their loved ones with dementia,” Andrea says. “You can start by thinking about the person’s favorite pastimes and then make a plan to help structure their time throughout the day.”

To ease your family’s stress this holiday season, use these expert tips from Seniors At Home’s dementia specialists for connecting with your loved one who has memory loss:

Give the Holidays Some Forethought

Before the parties and activities begin, consider steps you can take to make the situation more comfortable for your loved one. Have a designated place where they can rest if they become overly tired or stimulated. For large gatherings, consider providing name tags, especially if there are grandkids and great grandkids, who tend to grow and change quickly. People with dementia look for visual cues, and name tags can help.

Focus on Validation

Every interaction with a person with dementia is an opportunity for validation—it’s easier to meet the person where they are as opposed to convincing them of the facts. In conversations, the connection is what’s important, rather than the exact content of what’s being said. Resist the urge to correct the person with dementia, which has no positive effect; run with what they are saying instead.

Try to keep conversations light, and leave out unnecessary details. Concentrate on family harmony and pleasant activities, and share these ideas ahead of time with family members who are arriving from out of town—if they are less confident than you are in communicating with your loved one, they may need reminders to avoid focusing on problem-solving. Here are more tips for conversing with someone with dementia.

Have a Photo Activity Ready

Photos provide terrific opportunities to facilitate meaningful conversations. They can spark emotions and feelings associated with a particular point in time.

Structure some conversations around old family photos. Rather than asking specific questions such as, “Do you remember where this was taken? What year was it? Who were you with?”, try making observations about the photos such as, “I really like the way the sun is shining,” or “You always loved this photo”. You might want to label some photos with a label maker to further aid the memory.

Enlist Some Help in the Kitchen

The kitchen can be a great place to enable someone with dementia to take part in holiday preparations, helping them feel important and purposeful. Cooking smells can also be very therapeutic, in addition to providing a nice memory trigger.

When cooking with your loved one, have equipment ready and measure recipe ingredients in advance. Give your loved one something simple to do – for example, stirring provides a good range-of-motion activity. Just be sure to supervise in the kitchen to ensure everyone’s safety. You can also ask your loved one to help with table decorations or flower arranging. These are particularly good activities for someone with memory loss because there is no incorrect way to do them – thus setting everyone up for success!

Enjoy Music or a Movie Together

Music has a way of magically connecting families. Sing songs or listen to music together. Watch a seasonal movie that’s part of your tradition, and enjoy it as a family. If your loved one is not up for anything else, get them a blanket, make them comfortable, and watch the movie together.

Remember Your Loved One’s Needs

Make sure your loved one has enough to eat and drink. Many of us tend to get busy over the holidays and forget to eat. A person with dementia who is hungry might become agitated or emotional. Anticipate needs and always have healthy snacks available. If you’re in a new place, monitor for non-verbal signs that your loved one is having difficulty finding the restroom and consider pointing out where the bathroom is or placing a sign on the outside of the door.

Encourage Exercise

Exercise provides emotional and physical benefits for everyone. If someone resists the suggestion, frame it not as exercise, but as an authentic and fun family activity. Give a direct and specific task, such as, “Let’s get some fresh air.”

Get the Seniors at Home CONNECTivity Toolkit for Families

Based on the latest research and 30 years of expertise, the CONNECTivity Toolkit helps families engage and connect with a loved one who has memory loss. The kit includes communication techniques, interactive activities, and practical tools for managing care, as well as an expert consultation for using these tools in your particular situation.

Seek Additional Support

If you’re experiencing stress that seems beyond that of the holidays, it may be time to seek additional support. Seniors At Home’s Center for Dementia Care empowers family caregivers and families through education, respite, planning, and one-on-one practical and emotional support.

We wish you and your loved ones a happy and meaningful holiday.

Seniors At Home provides superior care for older adults and peace of mind to their families through home carecare management, and dementia care, as well as respite and other supportive services for family caregivers.

To learn more, call 844.243.4174 or contact us online.