Dementia-Friendly Activities to get in the Holiday Spirit

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By Kenna Little

The holiday season is often a blur of time spent with family, traditions and social engagements. For those caring for a loved one with dementia, the hustle and bustle of the holidays may feel overwhelming. With the change in routine, new family dynamics and nostalgia for holidays before dementia, the stress can quickly build up. However, with some planning and flexibility, there are many traditions and activities that can accommodate the needs of individuals with memory loss.

  1. Look at lights –Many public spaces such as zoos, botanical gardens, parks and recreation departments and even your own neighborhood put on brilliant light displays this time of year. Enjoy a crisp, leisurely stroll through the lights or, if mobility and safety are concerns, take in the sights from the warmth and comfort of your car. It can be a peaceful and relaxing way to ease into the holiday season.
  2. Decorate cookies – Decorating cookies is an activity that easily allows for different levels of participation depending on the abilities of your loved one. You can invite them to be involved in all steps of the process, from mixing the dough to cutting out the shapes or bring them in once the cookies have been made (or purchased!) to be a part of the decorating. You know your loved one the best and have the clearest understanding about the level of involvement that will be appropriate and most enjoyable for them. It can also be a wonderful opportunity for someone living with dementia to interact with children or grandchildren in a more relaxed and intimate environment before larger, often more overwhelming, holiday gatherings. 
  3. Crafts – As their ability allows, invite your loved one to participate in holiday crafts and decorating. Whether it is homemade greeting cards, wrapping presents or laying out mantle decorations, seasonally themed crafts can provide the opportunity to get into the spirit of the holidays while exercising motor skills in a low-pressure environment. Simple and repetitive activities, such as hanging ornaments or stringing popcorn garland, may be easiest to manage. Participating in traditional holiday crafts may also prompt reminiscing about traditions and memories from your loved one’s past. It is important to give your loved one the space and time needed to complete the activity. Offer help if asked, but allow them to utilize their own creativity throughout the process. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to decorate – which is part of the fun! 
  4. Volunteer – There is no better way to get into the holiday spirit than by giving back! Many organizations need extra support during the holiday season and have volunteer opportunities that can easily be adapted to fit the unique needs of someone living with memory loss. Reach out to your local food bank, animal shelter, place of worship or nonprofit to see what their needs are and what tasks may fit the interest and abilities of your loved one. Not only will this help spread holiday cheer, but there are proven benefits of keeping individuals with dementia engaged in their community. Social engagement promotes cognitive health and reduces feelings of apathy and withdrawal, which is especially important in the winter months. 
  5. Listen to holiday musicResearch has long shown the positive effects that music can have on individuals living with dementia, regardless of where someone may be in the progression of the disease. Music can improve mood, reduce agitation and facilitate cognitive function. Even when many other parts of the brain are severely impacted, music is often able to cut through the fog. Begin playing your loved one’s favorite holiday music and invite them to sing along. Frequently played holiday music can also serve as a repetitive cue that the holidays are coming and may help your loved one better anticipate and adjust for upcoming holiday events. 

Above all else, the holidays are a time to celebrate and be with the ones you love. This season may have difficult moments, but it is important to remember that the true value is in the time spent with your loved one, in whatever way suits them best. As you hold on dearly to the holiday memories of the past, continue to seek out joy, laughter, and peace in the present. There is truly so much to find.

Wishing you and your family all the best this holiday season!

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