7 Tips When Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss Over the Holidays

Memory loss doesn’t have to put a halt to holiday plans.

Tips for Family Gatherings

The holidays are supposed to be merry and bright, full of joyful celebrations with family and friends. But if you’re caring for a loved one with memory loss, you know that the holidays can be nothing short of unpredictable.

Disruptions in routine, unrealistic expectations, heightened emotions, unexpected visitors, and holiday preparations can all contribute to caregiver stress: What happens if Mom gets overwhelmed at dinner? How will the grandkids react if Dad has difficulty keeping names straight? Do you get to go to the office holiday party this year if you’re the primary caregiver for your parent?

In addition, the holidays can be a time of sentimentality and nostalgia. It’s easy to think back on holidays past and wish those days weren’t long gone. But who wants to be grieving a loved one who is still alive — they’ve changed so much! — while their favorite Christmas song plays in the background?

Fortunately, with some planning and realistic expectations, your holidays can still be a time to make new memories with your loved one — without compromising your holiday plans. Here are seven tips for coping with a loved one’s memory loss during the holidays.

1. Be Realistic About Your Emotions

It’s normal to want to avoid the sadness that comes with grief, but acknowledging that the holidays will be different can actually promote healing.

But remember that not everyone will be grieving the same way you are. Your sister might want to hold onto a tradition that you’re ready to let go of. Your brother might not want to spend the holiday at your parent’s house anymore.

It’s OK if you want to celebrate differently, but be honest. Tell your family what you do want to do for the holidays and what you don’t want to do.

2. Be Practical

Combining the stress of caregiving responsibilities with holiday traditions can take its toll. Remind yourself that you can only do so much, and set realistic expectations for yourself. You don’t have to live up to the expectations of friends and family — your situation is different now.

Maybe this year you send your annual year-in-review card to your 10 closest friends instead of everyone in your address book. Perhaps you host a potluck instead of cooking an entire meal for 15 people. And go ahead and turn down that invitation to yet another holiday party.

3. Adjust Expectations

Oh, commercials and holiday movies with their picture-perfect table settings and flawlessly staged family photos. You know nobody’s holidays actually look like that, so adjust your expectations and forgive yourself, your family, and your loved one when mistakes happen or things don’t go exactly as planned.

It might be helpful to consider adapting some of your family’s traditions. For example, if your family used to enjoy a late Christmas Eve dinner but your mom has trouble sleeping at night, why don’t you try having a Christmas Day brunch this year?

4. Prepare Your Guests

Before the holidays, consider having a discussion with your siblings to make sure that everyone understands your caregiving situation and has realistic expectations about what you can and cannot do.

If there are family members and friends who haven’t seen your loved one in a while, you can help avoid uncomfortable or harmful situations by letting them know about your loved one’s memory loss and familiarize them with any changes to their behavior, such as wandering or eating with their fingers.

You might say something like:

  • “Please understand that Dad may not remember who you are and may confuse you with someone else. Please don’t feel offended by this. He appreciates your being with us and so do we.”
  • “You may notice that Mom has changed since you last saw her. Among the changes you may notice are… ”
  • “I’m writing to let you know how things are going at our house. While we’re looking forward to your visit, we thought it might be helpful if you understood our current situation before you arrive.”

5. Include Your Loved One

No matter what stage of memory loss your loved one is in, there are still so many ways you can include them in the holiday preparations and celebrations:

  • Invite them to bake and decorate cookies or wrap gifts.
  • Take a ride to see holiday decorations.
  • Sing or listen to holiday music
  • Read cards.
  • Hang ornaments.
  • Reminisce.
  • Offer a gentle touch or a reassuring word.

6. Have a Quiet Room

If you feel overwhelmed running around, with kids and out-of-town visitors crowding in, imagine what your loved one with memory loss might feel. It’s easy for people with memory loss to feel overwhelmed or irritated by changes in their routine as well as loud noises and lots of people and stimulation.

Plan for this and designate a room in the house as a quiet room specifically for your loved one to escape to if things get too loud. This can give them a place of security in chaos and also give them confidence in social events, knowing they have a quiet room waiting, if needed.

7. Be Flexible

If your loved one keeps referring to you as someone you’re not or insists that your sister always hosted dinner when it’s been you for the past 10 years, try to meet them where they are right now.

Arguing with your loved one about a forgotten memory or quizzing them about your identity will only increase their anxieties or worries and further frustrate you. Be willing to let most things go.

As much as you can, try to enjoy the present moment. Planning ahead, setting boundaries, and simplifying celebrations can help you minimize stress and create an enjoyable holiday experience for you, your family, and your loved one with memory loss.

For more caregiving tips, subscribe to the monthly Highgate Senior Living eNewsletter.

Subscribe to the Highgate Newsletter