Including loved ones with dementia in holiday activities

The holidays are stressful, full stop.

The holidays can be infinitely more stressful when you are a caregiver for a loved one with dementia. Caregiver stress is real, as was mentioned earlier this week on the DLST Facebook page. There are many strategies that can be employed by caregivers to help reduce their own stress, but one strategy that I like in particular is finding meaningful activity for the loved one with dementia.

Research tells us that, when given meaningful activities in which they can participate, individuals with dementia are more cognitively stimulated. Meaningful activities also help to alleviate anxiety and depression, and promote positive social interactions. All of these factors lead to an improved quality of life for the individual with dementia and, as a result, their caregivers.

The holiday season provides many opportunities to include our loved ones with dementia into a variety of activities. Here are a few ideas:

  • Decorating: Include your loved one with dementia in simple decorating tasks. Have them help hang ornaments or hand you ornaments while you decorate the tree if you feel that their dexterity is good enough to handle that task. Window clings are easy to put up and are not breakable. Plus, they make a good conversation starter, especially if the clings are pictures rather than the gel kind.

  • Cooking/Baking: Cooking is a great activity for loved ones with dementia. It incorporates all of the senses, making is a terrific sensory activity. Involve your loved one by having them wash vegetables, pour pre-measured items into bowls, and stir. You will probably want to avoid using sharp kitchen utensils and monitor the individual around heat.

  • Music: Music has a weird way of triggering our memories. For instance, every time I hear a bagpipe, I think of Outlander. Music memory is stored in the part of the brain that is often preserved in the dementia process, so music that your loved one enjoys can bring up happy feelings. Plus, “music may reduce agitation and improve behavioral issues that are common in the middle-stages of the disease” per the Alzheimer’s Association. If your loved one enjoyed listening to Bing Crosby during the holidays, play a little Bing. Include a some movement with the music with clapping or dancing. Have a family sing-along or just enjoy the music on your own. Monitor your loved one to ensure that they aren’t becoming overwhelmed by the noise. Otherwise, enjoy the holiday jams!

  • Movement: Everyone needs a little “room to breathe” during the holidays. If you find yourself in that situation, take a stroll around the neighborhood and take a peek at the holiday decorations with your loved one if they are able. Movement can reduce agitation and can be a good sensory experience.

  • Conversation: If none of these seem feasible, simply have your loved one in the room with you and talk to them while you work. Conversation promotes social inclusion, which helps stave off depression. Choose topics that are happy and not too technical. You can talk about what you’re doing (decorating, baking, etc.) or about family members.

You know your loved one best, so some of these activities may or may not be an option. Go with the flow, adjust when needed, and give yourself some grace this holiday season.

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