As the holiday season approaches, families and loved ones dive into the annual hustle and bustle to get all their favorite activities and traditions lined up for all to celebrate.
These activities and traditions include dinners, parties, decorations, arts and crafts, shopping, presents, and much more.
For many folks, the Christmas season offers so much joy in the midst of it all. For others, especially loved ones with dementia and their immediate family members, Christmas becomes an overwhelming time of year to navigate.
With each passing year, as dementia symptoms worsen, Christmas becomes more of a chore than a nostalgic tradition.
We understand how challenging it is to participate in Christmas activities and to deal with difficult family visits when dementia symptoms play a central role in determining how schedules play out.
We also understand how difficult it is to problem-solve ways to encourage participation and engage our loved ones in Christmas activities when dementia symptoms pull them away from social connections.
Our ultimate Christmas guide will provide you with a plethora of information and tips on how to conduct activities, foster participation, navigate family visits, and avoid tasks or traditions that may help you and your loved ones with dementia enjoy the Christmas season.
Can People with Dementia Celebrate Christmas?
The simple and straightforward answer is this: Of course! People with dementia can indeed celebrate Christmas.
However, there’s a bit of a catch as dementia symptoms progress and deteriorate their cognitive capacity.
Their abilities to celebrate Christmas and their traditional methods of participation will appear differently with each passing year.
Here’s a case study that may help put things into perspective:
Donna is a 74-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia approximately six years ago. Before her diagnosis, Donna was an avid participant in celebrating Christmas with her family. Donna was the primary host for holiday dinners and Christmas parties.
She loved cooking the annual dinners, baking and decorating Christmas cookies with her grandkids, decorating the tree, and shopping for Christmas presents. As her dementia symptoms worsened, she was unable to navigate the kitchen safely.
Her family members took over the holiday meal preparation and baking. Although she couldn’t bake the cookies, her family would prepare all the supplies so she could still decorate cookies with her growing grandchildren.
Over time, other family members took over hosting dinners, but they’d host at Donna’s home to make her feel comfortable. Her daughter helps Donna decorate the tree but keeps it minimal not to overstimulate her.
Although Donna doesn’t go out to shop for Christmas presents, her son includes her in his online shopping activities and wrapping the gifts on Christmas Eve.
Christmas traditions are held tightly and close to the heart of many families. So, when dementia comes into play, it’s challenging and emotional to let go or modify those traditions.
However, to better include loved ones with dementia, families should find ways and make substantial efforts to include them so that they continue to feel the joy Christmas brings.
Christmas Activities for Dementia
Take your loved one around the neighborhood to go caroling. You may have to modify the route depending on their mobility. Individuals with severe dementia may opt to carol at home with a small group of family members.
Nativity Scene Re-enactment
In Christian homes, some families have traditions for re-enacting the birth of Jesus Christ. Assign or let them choose a role and assist them in whatever way seems appropriate.
Take your loved one on a short winter walk (or a sleigh ride if it’s accessible to you) to enjoy the winter beauty. Make sure your loved one has the right winter wear and proper footwear.
Christmas Lights Drive
Go on a drive around your neighborhood to admire the Christmas lights on all the houses. Make sure your loved one has an excellent window view.
Reading a Christmas Story to the Family
Pull out your favorite Christmas story to read to the family, whether it’s the First Christmas, A Christmas Carol, or any other classical favorite. If your loved one feels comfortable, have them read the story or even part of it to the family.
Help your loved one participate in putting up the holiday decorations of their choosing in the home.
Watching a Holiday Movie
Pull out the popcorn and the most comfortable blankets to watch a favorite Christmas movie with family and friends.
Attending Christmas Concerts
Take your loved one to a free Christmas concert or symphony to listen to holiday classics. Live stream a concert at home if the concert scene is too overwhelming.
Going Christmas Shopping
Get a list ready and help your loved one go Christmas shopping for family members and friends. If mobility is a serious issue, pull out the laptop and help them Christmas shop online.
Setting up for Christmas Dinner
Let your loved one assist you with Christmas dinner. That could include setting the table, polishing silverware, folding napkins, or whatever activity matches their cognitive capacity.
See our full list of Christmas activities for dementia here for more ideas.
Christmas Crafts for Dementia
Wrapping Christmas Presents
If needed, supervise with scissors or any blades on tape dispensers to decrease the risk of injury.
Decorating Christmas Cookies
Pre-make sugar cookies or buy cookies already pre-made and host a cookie decorating party with your loved one. Pull out all the stops with sprinkles, multiple frosting colors, icing tips, etc.
Decorating Christmas Ornaments
There are hundreds of ornaments that can be made for your loved ones’ Christmas trees. Select ones that would be meaningful to them and doable on their cognitive level.
Making Holiday Wreaths
There are dozens of options to choose from when it comes to mixing and matching artificial botanicals for a Christmas wreath. There are also online patterns for paper wreaths and hand-tied wreaths.
Decorating Christmas Stockings
Purchase blank fabric or paper stockings and help your loved one decorate each one with Christmas-themed paints, glitters, or other fun craft objects.
Making Christmas Cards
Visit any of the hundreds of websites for homemade Christmas cards to generate ideas of your own. Or, keep it simple and let your loved one decide how to decorate a blank card on their own.
See more Christmas crafts for seniors in our full guide here.
These days, families and caregivers have a wide selection of trees. When it comes to selecting a tree for someone with dementia, think about the following factors:
- Is this person living alone most of the time, or are they well supervised?
- Do they have a small or large living space?
- How progressed are their cognitive impairments?
- What are their behavioral reactions like? Do they get easily confused? Agitated? Upset?
- Do they try to put inedible objects in their mouth?
- What is their mobility like? Do they have a history of falls?
- What preferences do they have for a Christmas tree?
After asking yourself these questions and thinking through the options, review your Christmas tree options and see which one fits your loved one’s preferences and life situation the best:
- Artificial tree
- Real tree
- Miniature table-top tree
- Pre-lit trees
- Pre-decorated trees
- Minimalist trees
- Door or paper trees
Learn more about Christmas trees for people with dementia in this guide.
Safer Lights and Tree Decorations for Dementia
If a loved one with dementia wants Christmas lights on their tree, then approach it in the safest manner possible by utilizing the following tips:
- Use LED lights as opposed to traditional incandescent lights. LED lights won’t get hot to the touch and present less risk of a fire hazard.
- Check all light strands for frays, breaks, broken bulbs, or exposed wires before stringing them on the tree.
- Be simple in your light decorating. Too many lights or lights that are too bright or constantly strobing may be disorienting and uncomfortable for an individual with dementia.
- Put the lights on a timer so that the lights will automatically go out during the night. That way, the tree won’t be lit all night, posing a possible fire hazard.
Here are a few tips when selecting Christmas tree decorations:
- Avoid glass ornaments that shatter easily, which can cause injury.
- Avoid ornaments that look like food, like gingerbread cookies, candy canes, chocolates, etc.
- Select ornaments that have pictures of family members and friends.
- Find ornaments that are plush, bouncy, or can take a beating.
Christmas Trees and Decorations to Avoid with Dementia
The number one tree that you should avoid is the aluminum tree combined with the color wheel.
Although very popular in the 60s and 70s (and a point of nostalgia for many elderly folks), these trees were a fire hazard then, and they are a fire hazard now.
In some cases, the color wheels would get stuck, and the underlying incandescent lightbulb would melt the film, exposing the tree to a serious fire hazard.
You must closely monitor aluminum trees, and it’s just too much to gamble when giving it to an individual with dementia.
A person with dementia may randomly start pulling the decorations off the tree for no real reason. If that’s the case, ensure the ornaments and decorations come off easily so they can’t pull the tree on top of them.
If you have a loved one that tends to fiddle with the outlets, conceal the light plugs behind the tree or opt to have a tree without lights that year.
When decorating for a loved one with dementia, ensure you are doing it for the right reasons and that it truly makes them happy and not hindering their daily routine.
Tips for Choosing Decorations for Dementia
Here are a few tips when decorating for a loved one with dementia:
- Take it slow. Maybe only start with one or two simple decorations at a time. Let your loved one choose the decorations and decide where to place them in their home. As dementia progresses, you may have to declutter and simplify the decorations every year to avoid confusion and adverse behavioral reactions.
- Choose a decoration that is memorable and meaningful for your loved one. The goal is to bring joy during the Christmas season. Maybe your loved one will find joy in a simple, tattered, old decoration that means very little to others but means the world to them.
- Check-in with your loved one often to see how they navigate around their decorations. Notice if anything changes about their routine, especially for the worse.
- Choose decorations that can be hung up off the floor so that there are no added tripping hazards in the living space.
- Choose decorations that are beautiful and lightweight. That way, no one gets hurt if your loved one drops the decoration or throws it in a moment of aggression.
- Maybe help your loved one find more meaning in their decorations by assisting them in making their own through a simple arts and crafts activity.
Decorations to Avoid
If your loved one has progressed into the moderate to severe stages of dementia and has become very set and structured in their daily routine, consider the following tips on what to avoid in Christmas decorations:
- Avoid decorations that replace essential objects they use during the day: phone cases, soap dispensers, salt and pepper shakers, clocks, calendars, rugs, plates, silverware, etc. They may not recognize the object’s designated function and therefore go without.
- Avoid decorations that clutter the floor and create a tripping hazard: corner or hallway standing decorations, throw rugs, etc.
- Avoid placing tons of figurines on countertops as this can add to the clutter, making it very difficult for them to locate essential objects to maintain their daily routine.
- If you decide to hang or tape anything on the wall, do so with simplicity and care. Too many items on the wall that aren’t there all year round could result in confusion and agitation.
- Avoid lifesize decorations like blow-ups of movie characters because these can be very startling and life-like for individuals with dementia.
- Avoid decorating your loved one’s house how YOU see fit. Remember, you are not decorating to make a perfect Christmas or to recreate every Christmas from your childhood. Your loved one has impairments that are frightening and that need to be respected. Respect them and their living space. Work with them and only put up Christmas decorations that they approve of.
- Avoid decorations that look like edible foods: artificial or ornamental gingerbread cookies, candy canes, or other festive desserts. In the later stages of dementia, someone can easily mistake fake food for real food and choke on inedible objects.
- Limit decorations that emit strobe or bright lights that cast uneven shadows across the room or living space. This could disorient the individual and lead to falls.
- Avoid objects that are glass or fragile. This is if your loved one decides to start re-arranging or ripping decorations down while you’re gone (it happens in a state of panic or when they’re looking for structure). If they accidentally knock over decorations, things won’t shatter and injure them if they’re non-breakable.
See our full guide to decorations for seniors with dementia in this guide for even more details.
Music and Songs
According to a few experts, song choices boil down to acknowledging the individual’s musical preferences and any music that encourages participation or stimulates positive expression.
Here are a few tips on how to select music for the upcoming Christmas season:
- Consider the patient’s musical tastes. What genres do they enjoy? What music did they listen to in the past? What music calmed them? What music made them want to dance?
- Select music based on mood and routine. If you want to foster physical participation and engagement, select upbeat music. Select calming music if it’s nighttime and the bedtime routine is around the corner.
- Pay attention to all responses and reactions. Don’t get lost in the music yourself. Always check with the individual for over-stimulation or under-stimulation. Encourage participation when necessary, but know when to turn the music off or switch to a calming song.
Fun, Sing Along Christmas Songs
For therapy sessions, group sessions, Christmas parties, and more, here’s a list of sing-along songs that may be appropriate for individuals with dementia who seek movement, dance, and connection with others:
- Sing-Along with Susie Q. Dementia / Alzheimer’s Christmas Music for Seniors – Singing for Elderly – Santa’s Favourites – Fun Activity for Nursing Homes & Assisted Living. See it at Amazon.
- Beth Williams Music. Christmas Sing-Along 4 Seniors. See it on YouTube.
- Printable Christmas Sing-Along songs by Kelly Roper. This is great for individuals who prefer to sing along with a written format in front of them.
Traditional, Familiar Hymns
To set a more calming mood or to connect with religious roots, here are a few traditional hymns:
O Come All Ye Faithful: Sing Along Christmas Hymns for Elders with Dementia. Free downloadable music by Elaine Bosley.
Her songs include the following traditional hymns:
- Angels from the Realms of Glory
- Angels We Have Heard on High
- Away in a Manger
- The First Noel
- Go Tell it on the Mountain
- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
- Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
- Here We Come A-Wassailing
- It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
- Joy to the World
- Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
- O Come All Ye Faithful
- O Come O Come Emmanuel
- O Holy Night
- O Little Town of Bethlehem
- Silent Night
- We Three Kings
- We Wish You a Merry Christmas
- What Child is This
Holiday Party Background Music
If an individual with dementia is attending a Christmas party and you want to set the mood, but not let music necessarily be the main activity, here’s a list of ideas for background music:
- “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Gene Autry
- “White Christmas” by Darlene Love
- “Little Saint Nick” by Beach Boys
- “Frosty the Snowman” by Jimmy Durante
- “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms
- “We Need a Little Christmas” by Angela Lansbury
- “Christmas” by Darlene Love
- “Jingle Bell Rock” by Brenda Lee
- “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt
- “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by The Ronettes
- “Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives
- “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Frank Sinatra
- “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley
- “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano
- “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” by Johnny Mathis
- “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey
- “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee
- “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole
- “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams
- “Winter Wonderland” by Louis Armstrong
So, here are some tips when it comes to avoiding certain Christmas songs for persons with dementia:
- If the music stimulates negative behavior (agitation, anxiety, stress), turn it off.
- If the individual asks you to turn the music off, turn it off.
- If the music serves no purpose and stimulates little participation or elevated mood, consider switching the music out for something different.
See our full guide to Christmas Songs and Music for Dementia in the guide.
Food, Sweets, and Treats
Many families go over the top with holiday meals, cooking and baking a wide assortment of delicious goodies and savory foods.
Naturally, many folks with dementia will feel drawn to those traditional foods and want to eat Christmas meals and desserts (sometimes in excessive quantities).
Here are a few tips on how to approach meals and sweets during Christmas gatherings:
Provide Foods that can be Safely Ingested
This may take some consultation with a physician or speech-language pathologist.
Suppose your loved one has already exhibited signs of dysphagia or difficulty swallowing. In that case, major food modifications may need to be made during holiday gatherings. This could include providing the following:
- Softened foods
- Pre-cut foods
- Foods offered in limited quantities
- Drinks that are thickened to prevent aspiration
- Using straws if recommended by a physician
- Using adaptive utensils when necessary
- Provide their favorite holiday treats, but within reason. If your loved one has trouble swallowing or needs to limit sugar intake, supervise their meals.
- Avoid getting into food battles. If your loved one doesn’t feel like eating certain foods, don’t force the issue.
Gifts for People with Dementia
Buying gifts for someone with dementia may be tricky, especially if they’ve progressed into the severe stages of their disorder. All you can do is try your very best.
Here are a few tips and ideas:
- Avoid gifts that create a choking hazard, anything inedible that can be mistaken for food.
- Try simple and meaningful gifts: pictures of loved ones, photo albums, scrapbooks, shatter-proof Christmas ornaments with loved ones’ names or photographs, etc.
- Consider gifts that keep the hands busy: puzzles, simple arts and crafts, fidgets, etc.
- Try gifts that promote movement: music albums or players, instructional videos for safe physical exercises, etc.
Christmas Traditions to Avoid with Dementia
On a universal level, there aren’t necessarily Christmas traditions that you should outright avoid.
Each individual with dementia has unique needs and preferences, and family members and caregivers will each have different ways to approach and resolve any issues arising during the holiday season.
Instead of thinking about it as “traditions” to avoid, change your mindset and think about “negative behaviors” to avoid triggering during the holiday season.
Here are a few tips on how to do just that:
Consider All of the Senses
If there is an activity that is overwhelming any of the senses (taste, smell, touch, hearing, etc.) and your loved one exhibits stress or anxiety, eliminate the activity and try something else.
For example, a particular song or decoration may be too loud or colorful for them, so it’s suitable to get rid of it.
Yes, dementia is wearing on one’s cognitive capacity.
However, loved ones also need to consider how tiring the condition is on their physical well-being.
If an activity requires too much physical exertion (a winter walk, holiday shopping, decorating in standing) and causes fatigue, loss of balance, or compromises their vitals, avoid these activities and try something different.
Avoid Childish Activities
If an activity makes a loved one feel silly or childish, and they say so, then take the activity away and try something else.
For example, a person with dementia may find a specific craft activity childish and would rather do something more adult-like.
Avoid Activities that are Socially Isolating
Don’t set up your loved one with activity and isolate them to the corner of the room away from the family. Ensure your loved one is included in the annual family traditions to foster healthy social participation.
Tips for Dealing with Family Visits
Visiting family can make up a significant portion of annual Christmas traditions in many homes.
When it comes to navigating those family visits and laying out the groundwork for an individual with dementia, these family visits can seem daunting and awkward.
This is especially true if families are unfamiliar with the disorder and how symptoms affect participation in Christmas activities.
So, here are a few tips for dealing with these awkward occurrences:
Start with Simple Education
If you are visiting family members unfamiliar with dementia and how it affects your loved one, start with some gentle education.
Talk about how symptoms will impact their Christmas, potentially change their participation, and what behaviors to possibly expect (good and bad).
Problem-Solve Modifications to Christmas Traditions
For some families, this isn’t too bad of a process. Family members are willing to work together to adapt and make modifications as needed so a loved one with dementia can enjoy Christmas while visiting with family.
Talk About a Plan for when Negative Behaviors Arise
If anxiety, stress, or agitation crop up during a family visit, family members should be ready and expect it.
Talk to family members and let them know when the plan is. This may include changing activities, leaving the room to allow for de-escalation, leaving a family party early, etc.
Self-Care Tips to Avoid Frustration
Caring for a loved one with dementia is highly challenging. It can wear and tear at you physically, mentally, and emotionally.
During the Christmas season, when emotions can run high, it’s essential to care for yourself and to keep your own health in check.
Here are a few self-care tips to avoid frustration and stress during the holiday season:
Delegate, Delegate, Delegate!
You do not have to do everything yourself.
If you are the type of person who likes to host holiday dinners and family parties, it may be time to pass the torch while caring for someone with dementia.
If you are adamant about keeping certain traditions intact, you do not need to be doing it all alone.
Minimize Your Activities Every Year
Trimming off a few holiday activities with each passing year is alright.
As symptoms of dementia progress, activities and the usual traditions may start to feel overwhelming anyway. Pushing a few activities off your plate would benefit you and your loved one.
If you like to start planning your Christmas season in December, then you may have to start preparing it a couple of months ahead of that time to accommodate your loved one and yourself.
Planning ahead can avoid feeling rushed and overwhelmed when holiday activities and parties approach.
Take Care of You
Do a self-care check. Get adequate sleep. Eat nutritious meals. Stay hydrated. Exercise regularly. Don’t let the holiday season take away from your daily self-care.
Summary and Final Recommendations
Regarding the holiday season, there should be one rule of thumb whether you care for an individual with dementia or not: You don’t have to do it all.
Dementia is a progressive illness that deteriorates one’s cognitive capacity and can make the world a very overwhelming place to live in.
As wonderful as the Christmas season can be, overdoing it may present a challenge for someone with dementia. Additionally, overdoing it can add unnecessary stress to family members caring for loved ones.
Be selective in your activities, consider your loved one’s preferences, and consider each other’s health and well-being so that Christmas can be a beautiful time-honored tradition for years to come.