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University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing Associate Professor Rita Jablonski, Ph.D., has a checklist of suggestions for family caregivers to use in their holiday planning to make things happier for everyone: 

  • Keep travel plans realistic   Taking public transportation with a person with dementia can have dramatic consequences, but if you are going to travel with them, allow plenty of time to navigate the airport, train station, etc., and be prepared for delayed departures, layovers and cancellations. Know where family restrooms are available at all your stops if possible. Some family caregivers have business cards printed that read “Please be patient with my loved one because she or he has dementia” to hand out as needed. It is best to limit travel and reduce periods of time in unfamiliar surroundings for the person with dementia as much as possible.
  • Keep on a schedule Staying on a schedule gives the person with dementia some type of predictability, so plan accordingly. If you are going to involve the person in a family event or activity, try to hold it at a time during the day that is a good one for him or her. Plan rest periods for your loved one, especially at times when he or she may be irritable or uneasy, and be sure to keep his or her bedtime the same.
  • Avoid clutter Ensure that holiday decorations — even those family heirlooms that have been displayed for generations — don’t endanger your loved one. Make sure that holiday throw rugs and electrical cords don’t become trip hazards. Don’t place large displays in areas that would confuse the person with dementia. If the loved one helps with the decorating, be sure that he or she does not hide things where they can’t be found instead.
  • Avoid alcohol As a general rule, avoid alcohol consumption by persons with dementia, but if they are allowed to drink remember it may affect the quality of their sleep so be prepared for them to awaken at odd times. Also, with alcohol often being prevalent at holiday parties, be attuned to how many beverages the person with dementia may have had as he or she may easily lose count. One way to prevent accidental over-indulgence is to substitute non-alcoholic beverages for alcoholic ones.
  • Take a trip down memory lane Break out the family scrapbooks or photo albums and asked the person with dementia, “Who is it in these pictures?” Let them start reminiscing about stories and things they do remember from the past and let the grandkids film it on their smart phone for everyone to share later. Make it pleasant and don’t make the person with dementia feel like you are quizzing them.
  • Seek understanding If possible, talk to family members beforehand, especially teenagers and younger children, and explain the situation. Alert them to any usual behaviors or conditions the person with dementia may exhibit, and ask them not to chastise or try to correct the person for these behaviors. Ask them to read about dementia on the Internet in advance if possible. Ask everyone not to speak to the person with dementia in a condescending tone or talk “baby” talk to them. Ask them for their patience.

Jablonski also cautions caregivers against feeling compelled to “pull out all the stops” because it could be the last holiday their loved one will ever remember.

“That ironically will usually make it the worst holiday anybody will remember,” she said. “In spite of the best intentions, many caregivers’ own behavior sometimes triggers negative emotions in the person with dementia: anger, aggression and sadness. The stress associated with the holidays may amplify those triggers.”

Jablonski's internationally-renowned program of research is focused on improving the lives of older adults, especially those with dementia who reside in nursing homes.