The holidays should be filled with sharing, laughter and memories. But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic adds a layer of stress, disappointment, sadness, and a heightened risk for spreading the virus, especially for older adults who tend to have underlying health conditions. 

For the families of the 22,000 Montanans living with Alzheimer’s disease, it’s important to realize that a person living with Alzheimer’s may feel a special sense of loss during the holidays because of the changes he or she has experienced. And for their 51,000 family caregivers, there will be the added challenge of maintaining traditions while providing care and adhering to safety precautions.

To help ensure safe and enjoyable holiday gatherings, the Alzheimer’s Association offers the following tips for safely engaging with family and friends during the holidays.  

 Continue holiday traditions by dropping off favorite baked goods or a care package in a way that avoids close contact.

 Schedule your own “holiday parade” and ask family members and friends to drive by the older adult’s home with homemade signs or other festive decorations.  

Plan an outdoor visit with hot chocolate and blankets. 

Go outside for a walk in the neighborhood.

 Create and send holiday cards.

Take extra precautions for in-person gatherings

If you choose to include older adults in an in-person holiday gathering, weigh the risks to their health. Even when precautions are taken, close contact with anyone outside of your household increases the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Adjust expectations

The stress of caregiving responsibilities layered with holiday traditions can take a toll. The current COVID-19 crisis is creating challenges that can feel overwhelming for many families impacted by dementia. It’s more important than ever to take care of your physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Arrange for a group discussion via telephone, video call or email for family and friends to discuss holiday celebrations in advance. Make sure that everyone understands your caregiving situation, the safety precautions you’re taking and has realistic expectations about what you can and cannot do.

A conversation in advance is also a great time to let others know about any changes they might see in the person living with dementia. 

— Give yourself permission to do only what you can reasonably and safely manage. This likely means much smaller and more casual gatherings, if at all. No one should expect you to maintain every holiday tradition or event.

Consider celebrating earlier in the day so you can work around the evening confusion (sundowning) if it sometimes affects the person living with Alzheimer’s.

Connect through technology

Use video call software like Zoom or Skype to gather virtually. Since it can be difficult to have conversations with larger groups over video, adding some structure to the call can help. Play a trivia game, sing carols or share pictures from past gatherings.

Use video to capture and digitally send special moments, such as children opening gifts.

Plan a video call to cook or bake a special recipe together.

— Record and send a “video holiday card” that includes personalized messages.

—Schedule a time to watch a favorite holiday movie together from separate homes. Text or video chat while you watch.

If your loved one struggles with technology, ask a primary caregiver — or staff in an assisted living community — if they can help.

—Cross talk or simultaneous conversations can be challenging for people living with dementia, so consider this when planning.

Familiarize others with the situation

The holidays are full of emotions, so it can help to let friends and family members know what to expect. If the person is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, relatives and friends might not notice any changes. But the person living with dementia may have trouble following conversation or tend to repeat himself or herself. 

Family can help with communication by being patient, not interrupting or correcting, and giving the person time to finish his or her thoughts. If the person is in the middle or late stages of Alzheimer’s, there may be significant changes in cognitive abilities since the last conversation. These changes can be hard to accept. Make sure friends and family understand that changes in behavior and memory are caused by the disease and not the person.

Involve the person living with dementia

Involve the person in safe, manageable holiday preparation activities that he or she enjoys:

Ask him or her to help you prepare food, wrap packages, help decorate or set the table.

— When making holiday plans, consider what will be most comfortable and enjoyable for the person living with dementia, while keeping safety in mind. Maintain the person’s normal routine as much as possible, so that holiday preparations don’t become disruptive or confusing. 

— Focus on the things that bring happiness and let go of activities that seem overwhelming, stressful or too risky. Taking on too many tasks can wear on both of you.

— Build on traditions and memories and experiment with new, physically distanced traditions that might be less stressful or a better fit with your caregiving responsibilities, such as watching seasonal movies.

Adapt gift giving

Opening gifts over a video call like Zoom or Skype or even over a phone call can still feel very personal.   

—Provide people with suggestions for useful and enjoyable gifts for the person, such as an identification bracelet or membership in a wandering response service. Or, suggest comfortable, easy-to-remove clothing, favorite music, photo albums of family and friends, or favorite treats.

–Advise people not to give gifts such as potentially dangerous tools or instruments, utensils, etc.

—Depending on his or her abilities and preferences, involve the person in gift giving.

—If friends or family members ask you what you’d like for a gift, you may want to suggest a gift certificate or something that will help make things easier, like house cleaning; lawn, handyman or laundry services; food delivery etc.

Ask for support

Alzheimer’s Association Helpline is staffed 24/7 by trained professionals. Call the Helpline at 800-272-3900.


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