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Creating Safe and Enjoyable Family Gatherings for Those Affected by Dementia

Family gathering.
Think of positive ways to modify favorite family traditions if needed, or even start new ones that will better-accommodate the needs and routines of the person with dementia.

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Whether it means crowding around the dining room table to devour platefuls of steaming roast, mashed potatoes and grandma’s famous green bean casserole, or sitting in the living room strewn with gift boxes, bows and wrapping paper, the holiday season is a special time for many families to gather together. For most families, these occasions are filled with opportunities for togetherness, sharing, laughter and memories. But they can also be filled with stress, disappointment and sadness for those touched by Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia.

Here are some tips that may help to make family gatherings happy, upbeat occasions for everyone.

Adjust expectations

  • Arrange a face-to-face meeting or long-distance phone call with family and friends to discuss the gathering. Make sure that everyone understands your caregiving situation and has realistic expectations about what you can and cannot do.
  • When hosting, give yourself permission to do only what you can reasonably manage. If having company for an entire week is more than you can handle, consider making the visit a little shorter, or send a list of suggested alternative accommodations nearby.
  • When visiting, request any necessary preparations in advance, such as having certain foods in the refrigerator and bedroom space set up. If it would be helpful, ask your hosts to label important areas, like the bathroom and bedroom, with signs.
  • Stay as close to a normal routine as possible. For example, bathing and eating times should be on a similar schedule to what they are at home. Eating in familiar settings, such as a dining room table, may be less confusing than eating at a crowded restaurant.
  • Familiarize others with your situation by writing a letter or email that includes these points:

    ✓ I’m writing this letter to let you know how things are going at our house. While we’re looking forward to your visit, we thought it might be helpful if you understood our current situation before you arrive.

    ✓ You may notice that ___ has changed since you last saw him/her. Among the changes you may notice are ___. I’ve enclosed a picture so you know how ___ looks now.

    ✓ Because ___ sometimes has problems remembering and thinking clearly, his/her behavior is a little unpredictable.

    ✓ Please understand that ___ may not remember who you are and may confuse you with someone else. Please don’t feel offended by this. He/she appreciates your being with us and so do I.

    ✓ Please treat ___ as you would any person. A warm smile and a gentle touch on ___’s shoulder or hand will be appreciated more than you know.

    ✓ I would ask that you call before you come to visit or when you’re nearby so we can prepare for your arrival.

Involve the person with dementia

  • Involve the person in safe, manageable family gatherings and activities. Begin slowly by asking the person to help you prepare food, wrap packages, hand you decorations or set the table. (Avoid using candies, artificial fruits/vegetables or other edibles as decorations. Blinking lights may confuse or scare the person).
  • Maintain the person’s normal routine so that preparations don’t become disruptive or confusing. Taking on too many tasks can be stressful for you and the person with dementia.

Try to be flexible

  • Consider celebrating with lunch or brunch, rather than an evening meal, to work around the evening confusion or sundowning that sometimes affects people with Alzheimer’s.
  • Think of positive ways to modify favorite family traditions if needed, or even start new ones that will better-accommodate the needs and routines of the person with dementia.

Allow time to de-stress

  • Try to work in downtime between activities to avoid the feeling of non-stop frenzy. Both you and your family member with dementia will appreciate having some quiet time away from all the hubbub.
  • Prepare for a post-gathering letdown. Arrange for in-home care through a company like Home Instead so you can enjoy a movie or lunch with a friend and reduce post-gathering stress. Professional CAREGiversSM are specially trained to manage dementia-related behaviors and will give you peace of mind while you take some necessary time to care of yourself.

Family celebrations are opportunities to share time with the people you love. Try to make these events easy on yourself and the person with Alzheimer’s disease so you can concentrate on enjoying your time together.

The more you know, the better your loved one's care will be. Free online training and expert tips at

Last revised: October 28, 2011

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