Make Holidays and Birthdays Successful for Those With Significant Dementia

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Everyone loves a festive occasion -- even those with serious dementia can enjoy it. By tweaking some of the ways you think about a party, you can make the event one of joy, not stress, for everyone.

1. Focus on creating positive emotions more than memories.

Traditionally, we look for ways to make special occasions memorable: The magician at a child's birthday party, a feast for two dozen guests, a big surprise. Because your loved one has serious trouble with short-term memory and is apt to quickly forget even a grand party, it's better to focus your energies on creating a simpler day that produces a positive and happy vibe. Research shows that positive emotions can linger for days in someone with dementia, long after the specific cause is forgotten.

What to do: Make sure the atmosphere is uniformly pleasant and warm, with lots of smiles. Include beloved music. Cook simple-to-prepare foods that make the house smell good rather than elaborate banquets whose details make you cranky.

Let go of the impulse to follow traditions to the letter and do things the way you've always done them. It's stressful for you and may be neither noticed nor appreciated by your loved one, who cares more that those present are happy and affectionate.

2. Be prepared for a new way of giving gifts.

Receiving gifts can be a little different for someone with significant dementia. For one thing, your loved one may not even identify it as a present and may not know how to respond. The unknown can be a little frightening, even when it comes in shiny paper with a bow.

What to do: Express the appropriate response for your loved one. Exaggerate your expressions (big smile!) because your loved one "reads" your body language as much as or more than your spoken words. Open the gift yourself, if your loved one doesn't make a move to do so. Show it, name it out loud, and say what it's for: "Look, Mom, a sweater! To wear and keep you warm! And in blue, your favorite color!"

3. Craft a guest list around quality, not quantity.

Departures from routine, noise, and fuss can all stress someone with significant dementia. Even if the guests are all the favorite people from your loved one's past, he or she may not remember them all now, adding to confusion and distress. That's not to say the guests should never be those from the past, of course; only that you want to take care not to overwhelm, no matter how grand the occasion.

What to do: It's generally better to have a small gathering than a major blowout, even if it is Grandma and Grandpa's 50th anniversary. If you do have a large party, make sure the person with dementia is in a quiet corner with one consistent, reliable face at his or her side. Invite people to come and visit in ones and twos, and to sit down and talk, rather than rush through as if in a receiving line.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio