The holiday season is known for family closeness, traditions, and memories. However, if you have a parent or relative with dementia, this time of year can also be difficult. As a caregiver, it’s often tough to balance entertaining, hosting, and gift-giving, with the particular needs of your loved one. For the person who has dementia, all the faces, noises, activities, and other stimuli can lead to anxiety, confusion, or overwhelm. Adjustment to this “new normal” can bring a sense of loss or even grief for the entire family, remembering how the holidays used to be.

With this guide, you can understand the potential difficulties of the season. We’ll also outline fun and safe holiday activities for seniors with dementia that will keep this time of year a special one.

Understanding The Challenges of Holiday Activities for Seniors with Dementia

“At this time of the year, families have to remember that what once was is no more. Grandma might think she can still prepare the celebratory meal, but in reality, she cannot safely boil water. Or Grandpa, who used to love watching all the grandkids open their presents, now finds [it] a stressful situation that could take him days to recover from,” explains Rick Phelps, founder of Memory People and advocate for dementia awareness. 

Phelps continues: “I tell people all the time their loved ones have specific routines they are comfortable with. Something as simple as putting up the Christmas tree can throw a patient into a nerve-wracking situation and cause them to become anxious or depressed.”

How can you mitigate this tension and create a safe, peaceful atmosphere that is still festive and rooted with meaningful connections? Instead of your normal holiday routine, try these new holiday activities for seniors with dementia. Get the entire group to join in some of these ideas, and you never know—brand new seasonal traditions could form in the process! 

Make Handcrafted Decorations

One of the most time-honored holiday rituals is decorating the house with ornaments, wreaths, stockings, and tinsel. This year, gather some craft materials and create your own festive décor. Dr. Barbara Bagan, a professor of expressive arts therapy at Ottawa University, explains: “Studies show art can reduce the depression and anxiety that are often symptomatic of chronic diseases. Other research demonstrates [that] the imagination and creativity of older adults can flourish in later life, helping them to realize unique and unlived potentials, even [with] Alzheimer’s or dementia.” 

Dr. Bagan also notes that this activity can help seniors with dementia feel more relaxed, in control, mentally stimulated, confident, and able to socialize. Instead of making decorations too complicated or overwhelming, opt for a creative activity instead.  

Walk Around the Neighborhood 

Being surrounded by people for an extended period can result in sensory overload for those who experience dementia. If your loved one becomes agitated by the all commotion indoors, offer them a change of scenery with exercise and fresh air. Even if it’s only a quick jaunt around the neighborhood to admire holiday lights, exposure to the outside has both physical and cognitive benefits for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. 

The LiveBetterWith Foundation for dementia care lists the many benefits of light outdoor exercise: 

  • Mood enhancement
  • Decrease in stress levels and restless behavior
  • Memory recall
  • Stronger awareness
  • Sleep and dietary improvements
  • Emotional and spiritual regulation
  • Clearer verbal expression

Bake Festive Cookies Together

Most people look forward to a sugar rush this time of year, but there is more to being in the kitchen than just responding to a sweet tooth. Research indicates that baking can be a therapeutic ritual to nourish mindfulness, creativity, focus, and pleasure. 

In fact, “culinary therapy is the treatment du jour at a growing number of mental health clinics and therapists’ offices,” enumerates Psychology Today “It’s used as part of the treatment for a wide range of mental and behavioral health conditions including depression and anxiety”—which seniors with dementia can face. Moreover, Psychology Today continues mindfulness while baking “also helps reduce stress and promotes gusto for life.” Not to mention, the outcome is delicious. (Just remember to practice safety when using the oven and keep an eye on your loved one).

Turn on a Classic Holiday Movie

Whether the family prefers Home Alone, The Grinch, or Christmas Vacation, there are many seasonal flicks to entertain a crowd, and the sheer act of watching a movie has psychological benefits too. For those who deal with the effects of dementia—from the patient to the caregivers—film therapy extends beyond pure entertainment to offer catharsis and emotional release. 

“Through movies, you can find new perspectives that will help you reflect on and change your attitude,” Exploring Your Mind points out. “[The] different perspectives you see in movies can change your mental schemas and push you to be more creative, flexible, and innovative.” 

Find The Right Holiday Activities for Your Family 

While holidays might feel arduous and stressful, these activities for seniors with dementia could alleviate some of that tension and infuse enjoyment back into this season. 

Family traditions might have to adapt, but the basic sense of connection and love is still within reach if you release expectations and roll with the changes. 

Also, remember that everyone who experiences dementia has their individual needs and desires. Don’t forget to check in with them to see how they feel throughout the holidays and ask them what they’d most enjoy. 

We wish you and your family a very happy and healthy Holiday Season!