Holiday Traditions That Shine Through the Fog of Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Last year, I found that it was really hard to go through the holidays with the same traditions that our family had annually observed. Because of Alzheimer’s disease, Mom no longer has any context about what the holiday season means. Of course, she enjoys spending time with family members, but she can’t tell you why Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s are special days.

    Because of Mom’s condition, our family has rearranged our holidays so that we focus on enjoying each other’s company (as opposed to giving each other presents).

    So how do you help someone with dementia enjoy the holiday spirit? Mom has had three experiences recently that gave me a better context of how to help her enjoy this season:
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    1. Decorations. One of the residents on Mom’s hall has a mini-tree complete with lights in the room. Walking past the room (which is often dark), you instantly see the tree’s bright lights as well as the decorative lights that have been strung on the window. Mom has enjoyed stopping by this resident’s room to enjoy the pretty decorations. Similarly, festive decorations are on display in the nursing home’s entryway. There are places to sit and enjoy these holiday sights, so often Mom and I spend our visiting time near the festive Christmas tree. Another option – which isn’t available to my mom since she is really not mobile any more – is to drive a loved one with dementia to look at the holiday lights in neighborhoods or parks.

    2. Holiday Carols. One evening recently, I was visiting with Mom in the dining room prior to the evening meal. Right before dinner time, a group of students from Texas A&M University came to carol for the residents. Mom watched (and at times seemed to be moving her lips as if to sing along). The familiar songs seemed to get not only Mom, but the rest of the residents into the holiday spirit.

    3. Holiday Dinners. Mom’s nursing home hosts a holiday dinner for residents and their family members. For the past two years, we’ve taken part in this dinner because it provides a festive atmosphere, but also keeps Mom in a safe, stable environment where she has medical care if she needs it. Plus it’s a good opportunity to share the holiday festivities with many of the nursing home staff who care for Mom on a daily basis.

    Celebrating the holidays takes on a new meaning for people in the middle- to late- stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Your family may decide to change some of your traditions, but know that you can creatively find ways to keep the holiday spirit alive for your loved one who has Alzheimer’s as well as the rest of your family.

    Producer's Note: In the December 19 issue of the Washington Post, an article called "Silver Bells" takes you on a visit to a local senior living home, where 20 Alzheimer's patients prepare for the holidays.
Published On: December 18, 2006