Sharon Beth-Halachmy

Senior Moments: Tips for Celebrating Holidays When a Loved One Has Dementia

Source: pixelshot stock photo via Canva

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Chanukah in Israel is a special time; a full week plus of dancing lights, fancy donuts, songs and games. Whether your tradition is to fry up some latkes, sufganiyot, or sfinj, most everyone shares the tradition of getting together for a family Chanukah celebration.

But let’s admit it, holiday festivities often come with their share of stress – even more so when you have a parent or loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Adapting your celebration, doing some advance planning, and setting clear boundaries, will go a long way in reducing stress to create a meaningful and enjoyable holiday experience for you and your family.

Here are eight helpful tips (it is Chanukah after all!):

1. Timing is everything
Think about what time of day your parent feels best (morning? afternoon?) and schedule your celebration accordingly. Daily routines are important for people with dementia, so keep them in place as much as possible.

2. Celebrate with a KISS
Keep It Small and Simple. This may not be the best time to invite your uncle’s sister’s third cousins. Invite a small number of guests (or stagger hours), minimize changes to a familiar room and tone down decorations, such as blinking lights or large displays. Even with a small group, a party can be overwhelming or tiring, so try to set aside a quiet place for your loved one to have time alone to rest or visit with one person at a time.

3. Plan meaningful activities
Play familiar games like dreidel, cards, or Rummikub. Pull out family photo albums and encourage reminiscing which can be therapeutic to individuals with dementia. Sing Chanukah songs together or listen to familiar holiday music, also a form of reminiscence. Make sure to keep down the volume and ensure that activities are in line with your loved one’s abilities to avoid frustration and distress.

4. Prepare together
The smell of holiday cooking can evoke wonderful memories, even for people who forget so much. Participating in kitchen preparations to whatever degree possible is a great way to include your loved one in the celebration – and Chanukah is certainly a holiday with abundant opportunity for kitchen activities! Bake and decorate Chanukah cookies together, peel potatoes for latkes, or fill sufganiyot with jelly.

5. Roll with the punches
Before the party, explain the basics of the event to your loved one in the simplest way: what you are celebrating, where and when it will be, and who will be there. At the party, avoid correcting “errors.” Even though it’s clear to you that it’s a Chanukah celebration, your loved one might think its Pesach. Try to stay flexible and let go of norms – it’s more important that your loved one enjoys the celebration rather than have everything be “correct.”

6. Coach holiday visitors
Let guests know ahead of time about any changes that may have occurred since their last visit. It helps to be specific, for example “she may not recognize you,” or “he may ask you the same question repeatedly.” Providing a recent photo can help people prepare for changes in appearance. Offer communication tips and suggestions, like listening patiently and avoiding criticizing repeated comments, correcting errors, or interrupting. Tell guests ahead of time about the activities you have planned and suggest they bring something, such as a photo album.

7. Anticipate needs
A person with dementia often forgets to eat, which can cause them to become anxious or upset. Assign a relative (or caregiver) to make sure your loved one eats and drinks during the party and have nutritious snacks out as well. Look for signs and non-verbal cues that your loved one may be confused, is having difficulty navigating the space, or locating the bathroom, for example. Offer to help them or ask someone to assist them.

8. Take care of you
Self-care is always crucial for caregivers, but even more so during the holidays. You can’t do it all. Focus on the holiday activities that area most important to you and enlist another set of hands (or two). Ask for help with setup before and cleanup after the party. If your loved one does not have a paid caregiver, enlist the help of a family member or friend to look out for your parent or loved one during the event.

Sometimes, it may actually be better to bring the celebration to your loved one rather than to bring them to the celebration, especially if they live in a nursing home or care facility. Changes in surroundings and routine can be very stressful for people with dementia; celebrating in a safe, familiar environment free of stimulation may allow them to enjoy the celebration much more.

Chanukah – like all holidays – is an opportunity for family to come together to share traditions, rituals, laughter, and memories. By adjusting expectations and planning for every situation, your celebration can both include a loved one with dementia and still be meaningful and enjoyable, creating new and lasting memories for all.

Wishing you and your loved ones a very happy Chanukah!


About the Author
Sharon Beth-Halachmy is Founder and CEO of B'Lev Shalem, a senior care management company in Israel. She and her team of Care Managers work tirelessly to address the full spectrum of needs unique to seniors in Israel, from the routine of daily living to medical oversight, community and advocacy. B'lev Shalem's expert Care Managers ensure maximum independence and quality of life for seniors in Israel, and peace of mind for their families worldwide.