Making Holiday Gatherings Special for Seniors with Dementia

The holiday season is a time for families to come together, celebrate the past and make memories for the future.

For some families, this holiday season may be their first opportunity to spend quality time with adult parents and grandparents in months or even years, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic upending plans since 2020.

While holiday gatherings are a special time for every family, they can be extremely stressful for loved ones experiencing dementia, especially if this is the first year where the condition becomes noticeable to others.

Read on to learn how you can prepare a special family gathering that includes loved ones experiencing dementia.

  1. Planning a dementia-friendly event

  • Identify a small number (1-3) of family members who will share responsibility of assisting your loved one throughout the event. Be sure these individuals know how to safely help your loved one with tasks like standing/sitting, moving through the home, and traveling to/from the event.
  • Consider bringing on a home caregiver to assist with tasks if other family members are uncomfortable or unable to provide safe assistance
  • If your loved one has issues with continence, be sure someone is comfortable assisting with toileting, a
  • Holiday dinnernd prepare additional continence aids and potentially a second outfit just in case.
  • Keep your loved one’s daily routine in mind when planning/scheduling holiday events, including meal and medication schedules.
  • Schedule events to happen during the part of the day when your loved one is most alert.
  • Establish a “quiet room” where your loved one can spend time if the main event is too busy and is causing agitation.
  • Decide if you want to host a shorter event, or if it makes sense for your loved one to stay for only a portion of a longer gathering.
  • If you are unsure that you can provide a safe and comfortable environment for your loved one, consider bringing the event to your loved one’s home. Bringing premade food and serving with disposable plates and cutlery can create a festive experience without leaving a mess.
  1. Create a safe home environment

  • Understand how caffeine or alcohol may impact your loved one and decide whether to restrict access to these items or leave them out entirely.
  • Carefully review your home for fall hazards like cluttered spaces, items on the floor, unmanaged cables/cords, or unsecured area rugs.
  • Ensure both your quiet room and other gathering places in your home have a comfortable chair with stable arms that can be used to assist in standing and sitting.
  • Avoid using exposed candles or decorations that may be mistaken for food.
  • If you are serving food, be sure to include dishes that are easier for your loved one to eat with limited hand dexterity. If your loved one dislikes heavily spiced food, consider including a plain dish like rice or noodles that they can enjoy.
  1. Adapt traditions and activities to be more inclusive

  • Select party activities that play to your loved one’s strengths and abilities, rather than highlighting deficiencies. These can include simple puzzles, looking at photo albums, or watching footage of other family events.
  • Plan meaningful activities that engage the person. It is not the quantity but the quality. Prioritize the activities to minimize stress.
  • Make holiday traditions intergenerational. Time and memories shared between generations is special.  Encourage children and grandchildren to spend time focusing on a simple tradition.
  • Tell guests ahead of time what activities you have planned or suggest something they might bring, such as a photo album or family recipe book to promote conversation.
  1. Update family before the event

  • Have an honest conversation with family members ahead of time about any changes in behavior, health, or memory since their last visit with your loved one. Doing so gives others time to think about how they can better interact.
  • Provide communication suggestions on how to best approach the person taking in frailties.  In general, eldercare experts suggest the following:
  • Approach gently and calmly.
  • Speak on the person’s level to make eye contact (both sitting and face to face.)
  • To touch or not to touch may need to be discussed.
  • Reminiscing about past holidays may be a safe topic, but be aware of the person’s reception of the topic and move to a different subject if the person shows a level of agitation.
  • Don’t patronize or infantize your conversations with the person.
  • A loved one with dementia may ask about a family member who is not present because they have passed away. Be sensitive about these conversations and have a plan for how to handle these topics.  Sometimes coming up with another reason for a person’s absence may be the best way to avoid causing your loved one pain.

Putting it all together

Every family has different traditions and dynamics. Below are some examples of putting the steps above into action.


  • If your loved one has difficulty remembering names, family or friends can take turns sitting next to them to assist with introductions.
  • Determine who will be in charge of medication and emergency numbers if needed.
  • Determine who is going to drive the person home and ensure they are able to resume their daily schedule upon returning home.


  • While most activity takes place in the living or dining rooms, set up a calmer, smaller room nearby where your loved one can rest if there is too much stimulus.
  • Ensure your home is well-lit, and ensure music is kept at a volume that does not disrupt conversation.

Adapting traditions:

  • For people who enjoyed holiday baking, consider baking tasks that meet their abilities such as decorating the cookies or reminiscing about cookies they made for past holidays.
  • Buy frozen pre-made cookie dough for the person to cut or shape and decorate.
  • Old fashion sing-a-long?  Print out the words for everybody!
  • Holiday cards to be mailed? Assist the person in writing one short note and make copies to be included in all the cards.
  • If your family calls relatives during the holidays, consider putting the call on speaker so your loved one can participate when they feel comfortable.

Updating family and interactions:

  • Starting a conversation “Remember when… “may cause frustration because the person cannot remember the past event.

Try starting with “I remember when…”this allows the person to search calmly for the memory of the event and choose to join in or not.

  • Asking “do you remember me?” It can be distressing when somebody doesn’t recognize you, but remember that the feeling is mutual. Asking the person if they know who you are can make them feel guilty if they don’t remember or offended if they do. Try instead to greet the person with a warm hello and take it from there.
  • Encourage your family to learn more about interacting with those experiencing dementia prior to the event.
  • Be ready to redirect conversations if your loved one becomes uncomfortable while catching up with others.

Holiday gatherings are an emotional time for many families, especially after lengthy time away due to the pandemic.  By considering the steps above, you can help ensure your latest family gathering is a happy event for all, even if a loved one has undergone significant changes since the last function.

If cognitive changes in a loved one are proving challenging for your family, now might be the time to contact SelectCare and consider how home health care specialists with experience caring for those with dementia may benefit your family this holiday season.