Six tips for caregiving during the holidays

Communicate and celebrate – keeping the holiday spirit may be the best medicine.

August 01, 2023

7 min read

Mother and daughter holding each other's hands while sitting at the dinner table

Family, traditions, favorite dishes and good cheer. These can all be harder to enjoy when you’re also caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia during the holidays.

In addition to the burnout that can accompany providing care year-round, caregivers may experience heightened frustration with family members who don’t appear to be offering a helping hand when they’re in town, or don’t show appreciation for a caregiver’s efforts. It can also be hard for caregivers to participate in their own holiday traditions – from preparing meals to hosting gatherings – resulting in feelings of anger over missed opportunities or guilt.

From reducing your workload to preparing your parent or spouse for a shift from routine, these six tips will help you manage the stress that comes with providing dementia holiday care – making it a merrier time for you, the person you care for and those you celebrate with.

1. It’s okay to say no

Even if you’ve always hosted the family get-together or lovingly prepared a classic dish, if you have new caregiver responsibilities, this year may be different.

The first step to avoid feeling overwhelmed when caregiving during the holidays is to be realistic with yourself about your capacity. The second step is to let other people know.

Tell friends and family about your limited availability and energy level so other arrangements can be made. This doesn’t mean don’t celebrate. In fact, it’s just the opposite. One of the most important reasons to draw boundaries on what you’re able to do is so that you – and the person you care for – can enjoy the events that you do participate in.

2. Communicate

It can be hard to talk about a parent or spouse’s cognitive decline. However, for caregivers who frequently experience burnout, communicating about the realities of the situation is critical for managing stress.

Many people don’t know how to interact with someone experiencing cognitive decline. Reaching out with a little information in advance of a festive gathering can help everyone feel more comfortable. The National Institute on Aging offers a few tips for what information to share.

  • First, let people know about any new limitations and encourage them not to correct the person with dementia if they misremember a name or event.
  • Offer tips for gentle ways to introduce oneself – including adding context about how they know the person you’re caring for.
  • Remind them that talking loudly, getting too close or being patronizing could be aggravating.
  • Finally, suggest fun, ability-appropriate activities that everyone can participate in together.

If the diagnosis is new, consider including an article or links to resources about Alzheimer’s and how it affects memory. Though it can be uncomfortable to share a diagnosis, your friends and family will likely appreciate the information and feel more confident in their interactions because you provided them with a better understanding of the situation. It may also help them develop greater empathy for your role as a caregiver.

3. Continue to celebrate together

Making time to celebrate the season can provide caregivers with a feeling of connection and support that isn’t always present the rest of the year – and it can be beneficial for the person they care for. According to the National Institute on Aging, familiar events and traditions tap into long-term memory and can be reassuring to people with dementia.

Even when you aren’t gathered with friends and family, take the opportunity to share meaningful moments and activities with the person you care for. This might include flipping through a photo album and listening to their stories or performing holiday preparations together. Accomplishing small tasks offers those with memory impairment a sense of purpose and control. Even if they are no longer able to actively participate, sensory stimulation like listening to familiar songs, enjoying a favorite holiday treat and watching you decorate can help them anticipate the coming events.

4. Adapt traditions

The holidays are often joyful because they offer a departure from normal daily activities and an opportunity to connect with friends and family. However, large groups and changes in routine can be very difficult for those experiencing cognitive decline. When you’re managing dementia and the holidays, making a few small changes can go a long way. While the holidays may not look like they have in the past, traditions can still be honored with thoughtful adaptations.

Here are a few ways to make the holidays go smoothly:

  • Help the person you care for prepare in advance. By regularly showing photos and sharing stories about visitors and guests who will be stopping by, these friends and family will feel more familiar when they come to visit.
  • Plan activities for when the person living with dementia is at their best. If your family usually gathers for holiday dinner but your spouse or parent is at their best around noon, suggest moving the event to lunch.
  • Host celebrations in familiar spaces. While you may not be able to play host, if the person living with dementia is most comfortable at home, invite people over and delegate host tasks to family and friends.
  • Designate a quiet space. During the event itself, you can help reduce agitation by making sure there’s a quiet place where your parent or spouse can safely retreat to rest or accept visitors one-on-one. You can also plan in advance to break up the festivities with quieter, routine activities for the person living with dementia, such as a short walk or reading in another room.

Making efforts to ensure the person you’re caring for is comfortable will reduce agitation and improve their mood – making celebrating better for everyone.

5. Ask for help

AARP notes that for some caregivers, the only thing harder than providing constant care is releasing control and accepting help. While it can be tempting to try to take on everything, assistance is key to providing care for the long haul. Fortunately, the holidays provide the perfect time to ask for help – wherever you may need it.

Consider enlisting a family member to take over caregiving duties so you can attend a party with friends. Or if you just need a little help with errands or chores, you can hire a personal assistant or housekeeper for a few hours to help you stay caught up with daily tasks. Your local community or state may also offer resources, like adult daycare, so you can take care of personal matters or enjoy a moment of rest.

Beyond getting help through the holidays, many caregivers will put a home health aide or a short-term senior living stay on their holiday wish list. That way, when the holidays are over, caregivers can still get the help they need.

6. Care for yourself

As previously noted, it can be difficult for many caregivers to care for themselves. Sometimes this is due to feelings of guilt or concerns that no one else can do the job as well as they can. Either way, making sure your needs are met is the only way to ensure you can continue to meet the needs of others.

While caregiving during the holidays, offer yourself the small kindness of simplifying tasks. If your family exchanges gifts, consider purchasing them online, ask a friend to wrap them or simply get gift cards. If you decorate homemade cookies every year, consider getting a mix or a kit. In addition to reducing your load, sometimes you need to take a break from it altogether. Whether it’s the holidays or not, designate time to see friends, hit the gym or get a massage.

It’s also okay to take a vacation. When you’re ready for a reset, consider short-term stay options for the person you care for. Atria Senior Living offers short-term stays in furnished apartments with full-time staff on-site. This provides a healthy, social lifestyle for older adults, as well as respite for their caregivers. Find a community near you to learn more about flexible, short-term stay options.

Caregivers and the holidays

Resentment can spoil even the best celebration. That’s why it’s important to show empathy to yourself and the person you care for during the busy holiday season – and all year long.

Start by identifying your limits and communicating them to others. Setting clear expectations will help everyone adapt. Traditions may also need to be adjusted so the person you care for can participate comfortably. Finally, accept help and take care of yourself. With these holiday tips for caregivers, you’re sure to keep your spirit bright.

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Not sure where to start?

There’s a lot to learn when you become a caregiver, and you may be wondering where to start. Fortunately, many of the experiences you’ll encounter are common, and we've pulled together resources to help you along your journey.

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