Dementia Holiday Activities That Lower Stress and Raise the Joy

Last updated: December 08, 2009
Orange and Cloves

Holiday stress can soar for caregivers whose loved ones have Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. And for good reasons: Your own already-bursting to-do load stretches longer than the lines at the post office. Safety worries intensify and the person who has dementia may want to drive to the mall to shop, wander away in a crowded store, or insist on resuming dangerous old habits or activities, like baking or woodworking. You may feel prickles of grief over things the person can no longer do (travel cross-country to visit grandchildren or set up the Christmas tree, for example). Beloved traditions -- especially lots of lights, lots of company -- may now be bothersome or frightening to your relative. And did I mention that longer-than-ever to-do list?

One solution: Help the person keep busy and engaged with repetitive seasonal activities. Repetition that seems tedious to the rest of us is often soothing to someone with cognitive impairment. These activities stoke feelings of accomplishment and pride. All good: Call it repetitive de-stress syndrome.

Some ideas:

Make decorations

  • Set the person to work stringing garlands. All you need is a long heavy thread and a darning needle. Try stringing cranberries, popcorn, even O-shaped cereal (Fruit Loops are cheerfully colorful).

  • Fashion paper chains. These require a bit more dexterity: You have to cut the strips of paper, then curl them around one another and staple. A good project to have an older grandchild supervise while the person with dementia helps in whatever way she can. Use construction paper or, for a really festive look, heavy-stock wrapping paper.

  • Make pomanders. Clove-studded oranges to hang or display in a bowl are not only lovely, but their scent may evoke calming, happy memories. Again, they require a little dexterity but not much. Instructions here (scroll down; it's a different blog I do just-for-fun).

Have fun with food

  • Make cookies.Someone once famous for her Christmas cookies may miss the kitchen activity. She may no longer be able to handle Pfeffernusse or a spritz gun, but together you could mix up a simple slice-and-bake dough (or do it for her in advance) and then let her slice the log and and arrange the cookies on a baking sheet. Or set out colored sugar, sprinkles, and other decorations for decorating a tray of sugar cookies or gingerbread men you've already cut-out. (Kids love this, too.)

  • Crack nuts. Put the person to work with an old-fashioned nutcracker and a big bowl of walnuts, pecans, and Brazil nuts. A nice, soothing activity during family gatherings. *

Make a soothing atmosphere.

  • Stock up on classic holiday movies. Favorites to put in your Netflix queue or pick up cheap at the local superstore: "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street," "White Christmas," "Christmas in Connecticut," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," (animated Seuss version), and "A Christmas Story" (that's the 1983 modern classic about the boy who dreams of a Red Ryder BB gun). Invite your relative to choose if decision-making is not yet too fraught.

  • Put together a photo album of holidays past. This one takes a little time, but pays off in hours of repeated reviewing. Better yet, get a child to jot down the person with dementia's descriptions of each photo -- faces, places, funny things that happened (you may be surprised what's remembered, though also be prepared for nothing to be recalled); insert the notes in the album next to each picture.

  • Play holiday music throughout the day. Mental grooves are deep for these tunes, which makes them especially soothing. Stick to classics you know the person is familiar with "“ this is probably not the year to spring Bob Dylan's or Taylor Swift's new Christmas album. (Although you never know!)

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12 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

10 months ago

For Christmas, this year we had a calendar made with family pictures, as Mom loves looking at pictures...she identifies people easier - the older the photo the better! I hope she enjoys it til next Christmas.

10 months ago

I like the holiday music.

10 months ago

I like the photo album also. It will match stories he likes to tell me, most about him. I found the ones with the kids doesn't do as much. Sad. It's like he is checking them out. Talks all about his past. Even before "us". Is this normal?

10 months ago

My husband does not like the holidays because it is too stressful when children and grandchildren come. I have taken a new approach, that we will go to their house, but when I suggest this to my husband, he finds every excuse not to go. Too stressful for him to change his normal routine.

10 months ago

Thank You!! Great tips for all year also.

almost 4 years ago

GREAT IDEAS, Paula. Thanks for taking the time to share these...I agree the holiday music that is part of our very being (depending on where we were raised), keeps our spirits alive...and the smell of cookies baking and being able to eat some of that dough...well...YUMMY!

almost 5 years ago

As always, great post Paula. I would also include caroling or singing Christmas songs in general. I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the power of music and singing with dementia patients. If you are interested in reading more check out: Happy Holidays, Bill

almost 5 years ago

SandwichINK thanks for those great ideas. I have two books my daughter in law made for us but she used a different service. They are always in Bob's skilled nursing room and I get more questions on how to do them. Glad to have your recommends as well. I also coach and speak and love to have new ideas to share. That's why this web site is so terrific!

almost 5 years ago

I really enjoyed this article. Lots of interesting ideas. I especially liked the one about the photo album. One way to save a bit of time is to use an online site like Blurb, Shutterfly or even Smilebox. Have the first two places print the book you put together or just print out a Smilebox card with photos. All of these are relatively easy, fairly quick (if you restrain your perfectionist tendencies - something I am still working on :) ), and even great ways to save money. Blurb's starts at 12.95 with coupons periodically for free shipping. If you don't mind if it is all black and white, you can even get the price down to 4.95. I made a photo album last night. Took me 2-3 hours (because of that perfectionism :) ) but I could have done it even faster if it didn't have to be perfect. Then ordered it and it will arrive in the mail all done. Or you can print out a rough draft. It will have Blurb's watermark but might still be a great option for an elderly parent for whom you provide dementia care. :)

almost 5 years ago

I agree about finding the time but the photos idea does work wonders. We scanned and printed some photos from old slides that my grandparents had taken over the years. My grandmother loved looking at the pictures of her (deceased) husband, the farm and grandchildren as toddlers. One thing that relaxes my grandmother immensely is having a pet to hold and stroke. It calms and soothes her and the cat or small dog loves the gentle attention!

almost 5 years ago

Yes time, if we had any spare time. Maybe this is the time to try a Day Center, and let them entertain for a few hours. How about a Girl/Boy Scout troop to come to your home and do crafts and music? A school of older children. A friend or neighbor? What you need is a few hours of alone time for Self Care! time to call in that family member who never does anything and let them entertain for a day. Remember you have a right to ASK for help!

almost 5 years ago

A Host of GREAT HOLIDAY IDEAS to help fill up all of my excess SPARE TIME... If ONLY... (as if...)

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