The holiday season is a joyful time, but it can also be stressful -- especially now, as we try to navigate celebrations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CERTUS Institute continues to research the impacts that COVID is having on people who are living with dementia. One key finding pertains to how important routine and normalcy are to a sense of security and well-being. This holiday season, we must seek ways to honor traditions while staying safe and having fun.
Most of us will need to modify many of our time-honored holiday habits; but we know that the psychological benefits of making the effort to preserve these special traditions is worthwhile. For those with dementia, even subtle sensory cues can make a tremendous impact: the smell of a favorite recipe or the visual and tactile cues of seeing and holding their most adored ornament can serve as reminders of the peace, contentment, and love of the season.
The following suggestions are based on observations of resident reactions within our communities. We encourage you to incorporate these ideas into your holiday planning this year; and as always, remember what matters most: health, happiness, and connection.
Gift Wrapping: The somatic experience of wrapping a gift may trigger past memories and provide a sense of achievement and purpose. Wrapping gifts together can be an opportunity to reminisce and share stories about the past. This activity is a great way to include someone with dementia in a productive process of helping. Remember that a perfectly wrapped present is much less important than the process of completing a task together. Try not to correct or aim for perfection – just cherish the moment.
Holiday Cards: Our communities have fully functional post offices for resident use, and these have become especially exciting destinations during the pandemic. Residents frequently check for mail and are excited to show what they’ve received to their fellow community members. This holiday season, encourage family members to send greeting cards and photos to loved ones with dementia. Receiving a thoughtful delivery is a heartwarming experience and provides a platform for community conversation. When a caregiver sits down with a resident to read a card together, it creates a connective opportunity where the person with dementia and the person aiding them can engage in reminiscent dialog. In this way, a simple greeting card can turn into a meaningful experience of friendship.
Holiday Carols: Music is processed in every part of the brain. Holiday music, in particular, tends to be stored in the same area of the brain as long-term memory. That is why people with dementia connect so well with music. We have observed the power of music in each of our communities. Our research shows that after singing a few songs, people with dementia are more alert and willing to engage in conversation. Try singing a few holiday carols before engaging in conversation. You’ll find that there are both social and psychological benefits. Singing a familiar song is neurologically stimulating, and seniors may even experience less pain and a greater sense of happiness as a result of singing.
Videos and Photos: COVID has shown us all the tremendous power of technology to keep us connected: it is the next best thing when we cannot be together. This season, we suggest that families consider recording video of their children opening gifts, and sharing those videos with their loved ones. Based on data gathered in our communities, we have observed that videos are more powerful than video chatting because the person can watch a recording over and over again – providing a platform for continued joy.
Reminiscing: In most cases, dementia affects short-term memory; but long-term memory often remains strong. This means that those who are living with dementia are often successful at reminiscing about the past. Now is the time to pull out old photos of past holidays or even take out the box of holiday decorations and talk about each item. The power of these objects to trigger memories may surprise and delight you.
Recipes: The sense of taste can bring back memories even for those who cannot verbalize them. Taking a bite of their favorite cookie or slice of pie may trigger feelings of happiness and holiday joy. Make recipes that your loved one may remember, and don’t shy away from quick and easy options. Even store-bought cookie dough can evoke the joyful experience of cooking.
Aromas: Smells can impact our emotional state, and this can be especially true for those with dementia. Many scents affect a part of the limbic system called the hippocampus, which is crucial to memory. Smells can act as a trigger to simulate appetite; help orient the person to a certain time of day or year; and even help improve cognition. The use of nutmeg, cinnamon, and pine around the holidays may even be linked to a decrease in seasonal depression and, if used properly, may boost cognition.
Inclusion: Including individuals with dementia in activities that they can still do can contribute to a greater sense of wellbeing, purpose, connection, and accomplishment. As you seek to create new holiday memories this year, focus on the person rather than their disease. Be supportive and observe what they are capable of and they just might surprise you.
With a little creativity and flexibility, we can still have happy holidays this year, even during COVID. Every family and person is different and will respond differently to various scenarios. Work with the caregiving team to put a plan in place. They are there to help. CERTUS offers free Caregiver Coaching (yes, free!) which can help you plan and brainstorm.
For more tips on enjoying the holidays with a loved one who is living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or for further information about our unique Memory Care Communities please contact CERTUS Premier Memory Care Living at marketing@CERTUSseniorliving.com or by calling (407) 757-7597.
Wishing you a safe and happy holiday season from our family to yours.