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How to Make the Holidays Easier for a Loved One With Dementia

Holiday celebrations can be difficult for those with Alzheimer's or other forms of memory loss. Here are ways to make them more comfortable.

A senior couple holds hands, with one of them holding a pair of reading glasses
Try playing their old favorite songs, give food gifts instead of lotions and be ready to take them home when their eyes show you they're ready.
Richard Ross/Getty Images

This story is part of Mysteries of the Brain, CNET's deep dive into the human brain's infinite complexities.

The holidays aren't always as picture-perfect as a Currier and Ives picture print or Hallmark card. When someone in your family is suffering from memory loss, whether due to Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia or another condition, holidays often present a batch of new and painful problems.

Diana Waugh is a veteran nurse and a certified dementia practitioner whose business, Waugh Consulting, focuses on giving caregivers and family members the tools to communicate with loved ones with dementia. She's already provided CNET with helpful tips for speaking to loved ones with Alzheimer's disease or other form of dementias, but I wanted holiday-specific advice. Here are some of her tips.

Temper your expectations

"Any event, be it a graduation, wedding, whatever, takes (your loved one) out of their comfort zone," Waugh said. "They like consistency, and holidays are anything but."

So go into the holidays with reduced expectations. Maybe Grandma or Grandpa once adored midnight mass, wrapping gifts or decorating cookies. Perhaps a dinner with dozens of their closest, and loudest, relatives once would've been their dream evening. That's not the case anymore, but it doesn't mean the holidays are ruined. They're just different, and the best way to live the spirit of the holidays is to meet loved ones where they are. 

"Make a plan ahead of time," Waugh said. That plan should include a caregiver who's willing and able to take your loved one home when things get to be too much for them, even if that means the caregiver has to give up on their own holiday evening.

Do your homework

Before the gathering, alert other attendees to be especially kind and careful with your loved one. Waugh suggests sending an email, or calling. 

"Figure out your goal," Waugh said. Perhaps your goal is simply to make your loved one happy. Remind the other partygoers that Grandpa's short-term memory is just not there. Even questions as simple as "How's your day going?" can feel like a quiz he's bound to fail.

Suggest relatives and friends come up with three or so good stories or memories about the loved one. Ask that they bring those to the gathering and use them to get your loved one talking.

Waugh suggests people lead into conversation by using "I was thinking..." rather than a question format. So if Grandpa suddenly becomes sad, remembering that his wife died, acknowledge the loss and then say, "I was thinking about how she used to play the piano so beautifully..." and take it from there.

Obviously, highlight the good memories -- perhaps the funny stories every family has from holidays long past, such as a dropped turkey, or a terrible gift -- as opposed to current news events or cute stories about a great-grandbaby they don't know.

Adjust holiday traditions

Religious events

If your loved one would still like to take in a religious service, consider watching it online instead of attending in person. A visit from a member of their faith community might also be appreciated, but make sure the visitor is informed about their memory loss. If certain readings, songs or rituals will bring them comfort, see if you can make that happen within their comfortable home or room.

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Gifts

People with memory loss don't need perfumes, lotions or other products to clutter up their space, Waugh said. Instead, bring them a favorite food that can be eaten that day. Or if they're able to get massages, haircuts or manicures, a gift certificate for those is useful if you're also willing to make them the appointment and ensure someone gets them there on time. And though Waugh laughs that it's a cliche, "your presence is the best present."

Music

Make a short list of your loved one's favorite holiday songs -- you may have to do some detective work to find out. Choose the versions they're most familiar with, maybe Bing Crosby and not Mariah Carey. And listen to the tunes together, commenting on the songs afterward. Don't just let the music play on in the background as a babysitter, Waugh said.

Food

"Food is a great memory device," Waugh said. And holiday food has that extra benefit of playing a rich role in long-term memories. 

Find out what your loved one's favorite dish is, holiday-themed or otherwise, and make or buy it for them. If they were a home cook, they may be able to share special kitchen tips or even full recipes. Obviously, don't pressure them for exact measurements or lengthy details, but remember, those older memories stick around. You may be surprised at how much they still have to share.

Visiting hours

If a flood of out-of-town relatives suddenly appear and they all want to see Great-Aunt Eileen, space them out. 

"Set up special visiting times for out-of-towners," Waugh suggested. "Maybe short times on different days."

And be sure to coach those relatives on the reality of short-term memory loss. Explain to them how Waugh's favorite sentence intro, "I was thinking," leads to more productive discussions than rapid-fire questions on topics Eileen just can't force to the surface.

Be kind to yourself

Caregivers have it rough. Don't expect perfection.

"You're going to blow it [at one point]," Waugh said. "When that happens, drop back five (yards) and punt." 

In other words, don't dwell on mistakes. Waugh herself has written a book, I Was Thinking: Unlocking the Door to Successful Conversations with Loved Ones With Cognitive Loss. Yet, she remembers a recent time when she asked a person with memory loss a question that her experience should've taught her they couldn't answer.

Move on quickly, she says. If you're at a restaurant or club, say, "I've heard they have good food here," and start discussing the meal.

"Don't get caught up in the apology," Waugh said. "They're very perceptive."

Don't overstay

When your loved one has had enough, you'll know, Waugh said. 

"Their eyes dull out," she said. "They just back right out (of the event)."

A person may say, "I want to go home," Waugh notes, and what they really mean by that is, "I don't feel safe and secure, because I can't manage this (event)." Now is when you put your plan into action and call on whichever person has agreed to take Grandma home.

This may mean Grandma's holiday gathering is as short as two hours. Try not to worry that they're missing out. Waugh remembers a woman with cognitive loss whose family took her to a wedding but skipped the reception with her, knowing it would just be too much. 

Instead of feeling left out, she was able to enjoy what she could, and get home before she hit a wall.

"The next day," Waugh said, "she was smiling ear to ear."