My mother’s face clenched as she walked into the living room. She gripped my father’s arm and seemed to shrink against him. It was Thanksgiving Day and even though she knew and loved everyone in the room, I felt her anxiety and discomfort. The cacophony of sounds, the loudness of the laughter, the exuberance of racing children, must have confused and frightened her. We were spending four days together during the holiday weekend and I realized we needed to create a dementia-inclusive holiday celebration. We needed to find ways to help Mom feel safe, engaged, and loved. Here are some of the ideas that evolved from that and other celebratory experiences.
Use the Buddy System
We created a gentle schedule, so Mom always had a trusted person at her side. Sometimes it was my dad. But other times, we wanted Dad to have the pleasure of mingling with friends and family. Then a friend or a relative sat with Mom, chatting with her, letting her know anything that was happening, and introducing her to anyone who came up to talk.
Smooth the Way for Connections
Imagine a smiling stranger walking toward you, calling you by name and acting like you are best friends. What do you do and what do you say? Many of us have experienced that, whether or not we are living with dementia, and it’s rather stressful. To reduce anxiety and create a dementia inclusive holiday, encourage people to say their name and explain their context — ‘I’m Sarah, your cousin from Boston.” “Hello, I’m Frank, your neighbor from Memphis. “It’s Ellen, your old friend from Sunday School.”
Be a Compassionate Listener
When talking, maintain eye contact with the person who is living with dementia. Don’t correct or contradict or try to pull them into the current reality. Simply listen lovingly and enjoy the conversational flow.
Create an Escape Plan
Too much sensory stimulation can be overwhelming. Create a quiet place for respite and check in often to see if your loved one needs some rest or alone time. Designate a caring person to drive your loved one home when he tires of the festivities.
Part of creating a dementia inclusive holiday is offering a variety of ways to engage and contribute. If you’re putting together a meal, enjoy preparing food together. Share familiar activities such as snapping beans, tearing lettuce for salad, stirring chocolate chips into cookie dough, or putting together sandwiches. Prepare a few favorite foods.
If you are decorating the house, adapt the activity as needed so everyone gets into the fun. Bringing out beloved ornaments and décor can be a rich conversation catalyst.
The Sounds of Dementia Inclusive
What does a dementia inclusive holiday gathering sound like? Choose background music that is familiar, music of their era played in a style they resonate with. You can use the tunes as a conversation catalyst by saying, “This song sounds familiar. What does it make you think of?” or “What do you like about this song?” You can also sing or hum along to tunes that you both know and love. Some families have a holiday songbook and a tradition of singing favorite tunes or carols. Make sure your songbooks are easy to read and hold.
Through the years, we adapted our celebrations so we all felt as comfortable and connected as possible. Throughout all the changes, we tried to appreciate each other exactly as we were, being grateful for our time together.
Here’s to a holiday season filled with grace, gratitude and generosity.
Deborah Shouse is a writer, speaker, editor, and dementia advocate. Deborah’s newest book , Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together, features dozens of experts in the field of creativity and dementia. These innovators share ideas that engage the creative spirit so care partners and people living with dementia can continue to experience meaningful moments of connecting.
Learn more at DementiaJourney.org