Managing the Holidays and Anniversary Reactions for those Living with Dementia

Elderly woman with her granddaughter

It is commonly known that the holidays can be a particularly difficult time for many people.  With the extra demands of the season such as decorating, purchasing gifts, managing events, welcoming guests, maintaining traditions, travel, etc. it is no wonder that people often feel a sense of stress among the joyful moments also associated with this time of year.  When we then combine these factors with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or related form of dementia, the stress levels may still exist, indeed, they may grow to a point where the affected person feels out of control and may begin to show behavioral expressions of a catastrophic nature.  To ease the potential for moments of upset for the person living with dementia during the holiday season, caregivers should exercise great care in insulating the affected person from stressful circumstances during this time of year, while still finding a way to allow the person to feel the joyful moments that also accompany this festive time.  Some recommendations to provide this balance would be:


  • If taking a loved one to a different location to enjoy a celebration, ensure that the person can leave their living environment without anxiety, often referred to as “transition trauma”. If the person becomes anxious or upset upon leaving their familiar environment, perhaps staying in and asking others to visit would be a better idea.
  • Be aware of your loved one’s early signs/signals of anxiety or upset, particularly when in the midst of group gatherings or events that have a lot of noise and activity. If you see these signs, take your loved one to a quiet place and help them re-center with some quiet conversation, music or deep breathing exercises.  If your loved one is prone to moments such as these, schedule “quiet breaks” throughout the event to help them remain calm and happy throughout.
  • Avoid starting new traditions if your loved one is well into their dementia journey.  People living with dementia tend to do best in familiar routines, habits and traditions.  This might not be the year to do Christmas in Florida if your loved one has always experienced this holiday in cold weather.  The change could be disorienting to your loved one.
  • Allow your loved one to carry on his/her traditional holiday roles, even if doing so in an approximated fashion. It may require that you go behind to finish the task or correct a few mistakes, but the person living with dementia will have a more meaningful holiday experience and will still feel like a part of the process.
  • Concentrate on the music and ritualistic aspects of the season. Music and entrenched traditions tap into the memories often still intact well into a dementia journey.  Such experiences also have a way of uplifting a person’s mood and may enhance your loved one’s emotional state.

Also, be aware of any significant life events that have occurred during this time of year.  A condition known as an “anniversary reaction” may occur if a life event that caused a strong emotional response happened in your loved one’s life during the winter months.  If someone passed away, if the person was at war, or if a significant other left home, had an accident, etc., be watchful of your loved one’s emotional state during this time.  Due to their dementia, the affected individual might not be able to verbally tell you what is going on, but their behavioral expressions may indicate that they are remembering these emotional times.  Provide additional support, meaningful and engaging activities, and reminisce about happier memories during this time to help them get through any challenging memories of this time of year.  With some extra planning, careful management and copious of amount of empathy, love and compassion, this busy time of year can remain a truly joyous and celebratory time for all.


Visit our Memory Care page to learn more about memory care services at American Senior Communities.

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Disclaimer: The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The author does not in any way guarantee or warrant the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any message and will not be held responsible for the content of any message. Always consult your personal physician for specific medical advice.

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