Dementia Aware  

Dementia and the holidays

What you need to know about celebrating the holidays with a person with dementia

With the holiday season approaching quickly — Hanukah, Christmas — people’s lives become busier and more stressful as they bake, shop, decorate and plan for the festivities.

For people with dementia and their caregivers, the holiday season can be a mixture of joy and sadness, and it is not unusual to feel a special sense of loss and disconnection at this time.

In the early stage of dementia, there will likely be just a minor change, but as the dementia progresses, it is a good idea to rethink previous holiday traditions.

Keep things simple, less is more — fewer visitors, fewer holiday events, fewer lights, fewer decorations are key for the person with dementia and caregiver to enjoy the holiday season.

Remember, the noisier and busier the environment, the more overstimulated the person with dementia will become and this can result in behaviour changes such as anger, pacing, agitation.

The person with dementia can still participate and contribute to the holiday season by helping with some simple tasks:

  • String garlands of popcorn and cranberries, cereal e.g. fruit loops, cheerios. Repetition that seems tedious to others is often a source of great comfort and can be soothing to a person with dementia
  • Wrap gifts
  • Stamp and seal envelopes
  • Crack nuts
  • Pack homemade cookies and baking goods in tins
  • Stir cake batter, icing

Tips for the Caregiver

Before the holidays:

  • Talk with family, share tasks, cooking, etc.
  • Consider on-line gift shopping, so person with dementia can participate
  • Utilize in-home respite from community care, private agency, or family/friends for caregiver to have a break and/or attend important family events that may be too stressful for person with dementia e.g. carol singing, holiday play
  • Continue with daily routine as much as possible

Create a soothing holiday atmosphere:

  • Consider eating the holiday meal earlier in the day
  • Limit number of visitors to home. Too many guests, especially if the person with dementia does not recognize them can be frustrating and tiring
  • Play holiday music or use a personalized MP3 Player with headphones
  • Watch holiday and/or old movies, religious/spiritual shows
  • Have favourite foods/beverages available: enlist friends/family to bake, try store-bought or buy at holiday craft sales
  • Colouring books
  • Do a large piece puzzle together (great to do with younger family members)
  • Share holiday stories and memories
  • Ensure person with dementia has quiet time

Try to avoid:

  • Blinking lights
  • Caution with extension cords — tripping hazard
  • Figurines/toys that play music or sing
  • Limit use of potpourri, scented candles — sensory overload
  • Avoid fake fruit and candies as person with dementia may mistake them for food
  • Limit use of alcohol/ sugary beverages. Too much alcohol and sugar can trigger behavioral and mood changes, may interact with medications and increase potential risk of falling


Travelling with a person with dementia can be challenging especially if the person is in the middle or advanced stage of dementia.

Any change in routine can trigger distress, increased confusion, and agitation, as the person tries to make sense of the unfamiliar environment. Remember, a person with dementia will have difficulty adjusting to time changes.

People with dementia do best in a calm, familiar, more structured environment; however, with careful planning and organization, travel can be successful. Before undertaking any travel plans, it is advisable to talk with your doctor first.

When planning a trip, travel early in the day and on a less busy day, try to avoid travel at sundown and nighttime.

Postpone trip if either of you are unwell. Keep important documents on hand and pack a bag with incontinent products, change of clothes, medications, snacks/fluids. Administer any calming medications as prescribed by doctor.

Ensure person with dementia wears an identification bracelet/necklace. Upon arrival at destination, assist person to the washroom, give fluids, settle the person in a quiet, calm area to rest.

Travel by car:

  • Check car is safe to drive: check oil, tires
  • Do not allow the person with dementia to drive
  • Ensure person is sitting comfortably and wearing seatbelt
  • Engage safety/childproof locks on doors
  • For long trip, plan for breaks: bathroom, short walk
  • Use washroom before trip. If incontinent, ensure protective underwear worn
  • Do not leave person unattended. If you must leave car, lock all doors and take car keys
  • Park in a safe area so person cannot exit car close to traffic

Travel by air:

  • Advise airline you are travelling with a person with dementia
  • Purchase cancellation insurance
  • Request assistance to board/leave airplane, sit together, select seats in first three rows, preferably middle and aisle seat, close to bathroom
  • Take MP3 player/headphones, a small puzzle, coloring book, deck of cards to distract person

Do not travel if person with dementia:

  • frequently wanders or wants to leave home constantly
  • Is usually up all night and/or experiences sundowning behaviour
  • Is aggressive or agitated
  • Is delusional, paranoid, hallucinates and/or displays anti-social behaviour
  • Becomes restless, anxious, emotional in noisy, busy environments
  • Is already experiencing disorientation and restless pacing behavior at home
  • May place the caregiver or others at risk of harm e.g. attempt to drive car

Nursing Home

  • Join person with dementia for holiday meal
  • Talks with staff re: feasibility of person coming home for a holiday meal (see suggestions above)
  • If person with dementia asks to return to nursing home, do not be offended, consider it a positive sign that the person now considers the nursing home his/her home

*Join me on Sunday, Dec. 10, at 13:30 PST where I will be discussing Dementia and the Holidays on Caregivers with Hope.

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About the Author

Tracey Maxfield, RN, BSN, GNC(c), DDS, is a dementia educator, consultant and advocate with over 35 years working with dementia populations in the U.K. and Canada.

She has worked in a variety of heath-care settings: acute care, palliative care, community care, residential care, physicians offices and community health centres.

Tracey has appeared on the U.S. radio shows Caregivers With Hope and Alzheimer’s Speaks, and has a dementia column in an on-line medical and holistic magazine, The Scrutinizer. 

She is a the Purple Angel Dementia Ambassador for the Central Okanagan, and sits on the board of directors for Seniors Outreach Society, and is a committee member of the Better At Home program.

She can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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