Memory loss and dementia: celebrating holidays and festivals
The anticipation of an upcoming religious holiday or event often comes with its share of excitement. Preparations for the festivities can put you in a happy mood, as you contemplate sharing the significance of the occasion.
Over time, you and your family may host guests who will require a little more care and attention to make them feel included and part of the festivities. For example, a guest who has dementia or another form of memory loss will need you to make some extra preparations in order to ensure that they are comfortable and able to join in the fun.
But by making a few adjustments to the planned activities—and paying attention to the needs and limitations of your guest (or guests!)—your festival celebrations can be joyous events for everyone.
Planning for the event
Here are some things to think about prior to the day. Please keep in mind this is just a guide; each person’s requirements may be different.
First, think of general practicalities:
- Who else is on the guest list? A person with dementia can easily feel anxious if they are amongst people they don’t recognise. If any members of the family have changed their appearance significantly since the last time you were all together, it could be a good idea to explain this ahead of time. For example, you could show them ‘before and after’ photographs, so that they are familiar with someone’s new beard or hair colour, and will hopefully recognise them more easily on the day. TIP: It may also be a good idea to discreetly inform other guests (who aren’t already aware) that a particular friend or family member has dementia. If they are prepared for—and able to understand—any unusual behaviour, it may help to avoid any potentially awkward situations.
- Where are your facilities? It’s a good idea to ensure that necessities like toilets are easy to find and equipped with any additional conveniences that might be needed. A person with dementia will be a lot more comfortable knowing that these preparations have been made. If your guest has a carer joining them for extra assistance on the day, let them know this information as well.
- Extra consideration during the meal. Make sure you know in advance whether your guest might require additional help at the dinner table. For example, they may struggle to cut their food or eat large pieces. To avoid embarrassment during the meal, it would be sensible to research this issue, so you can discretely prepare their plate accordingly and serve it to them without calling any extra attention to it.
- Traditional reading material. Consider whether your guest with dementia might want to join in during prayers and would like their own copy of religious reading material. These can be easily obtained in larger print editions if required, but you’ll need to prepare for this ahead of the day to ensure you have it ready for the occasion. For example, you can find a large print Haggadah for Passover via the Jewish Heritage for the Blind website. You may also need to enquire whether your guest will need help turning pages or holding onto reading material during prayer time—and assist them if necessary.
- Seating plans. This is applicable both at the dinner table and also during other activities. Make sure that you seat someone with dementia in a position that is included in the celebrations (not just shoved in a quiet corner and forgotten about). But be mindful not to trap them in an over stimulating environment; for example, don’t place them at the kids' end of the dining table where noise and chaos could trigger anxiety and stress.
- Quiet time. Make sure that, however you decide to plan the schedule for the day, there is space for a quiet zone where a guest with dementia can retreat to if they need a little time to themselves. This could ideally be a spare bedroom, so they can have a lie down if they feel like it.
- Check in. It’s really important that you regularly check on a family member with dementia to ensure they are feeling comfortable. Don’t overdo it, as this could then have the reverse effect! But it’s good to be aware if they are starting to feel overwhelmed, so you can take action quickly and diffuse any stress before it becomes an issue.
- Accept help. If you have the resources, consider hiring someone to help for the day to assist you with cooking, clearing up, etc. This may enable you to spend more time with your guests, and in particular, attend to the needs of a family member with dementia. This will help you from feeling overwhelmed yourself.
- Be flexible. Dementia varies, often significantly, from person to person, so it’s important not to have any expectations of how an activity or experience will pan out. Often the holiday, in its entirety, might not go completely to plan, but some aspects of it will be enjoyed. It’s these special moments that, if you take care to notice them, will make the whole experience meaningful and worthwhile.
- Stick to a schedule. While being flexible will be essential, just remember that a person with dementia will very often rely on a regular daily routine to create security and comfort. Visiting friends or family outside of their usual environment, and taking part in unfamiliar activities, could cause anxiety. Try, where possible, to be considerate of their routine (as the less it changes, the more likely they are to feel comfortable). For example, if your guest eats lunch or dinner at a certain time each day, perhaps try to follow these timings for your own festive meal. TIP: Another good idea could be to prepare a schedule for the day in advance, and go through it with them so they will be a little more prepared. This doesn’t need to be too detailed, but you could set out an order of events, such as:
- 11am: Arrive for tea/coffee and chat/activity before lunch.
- 12pm: Sit down for lunch.
- 1pm: A game with the children.
- 1.30pm: Gift giving with tea/coffee and chat.
- 2pm: A bit of quiet time, for kids watching TV and adults relaxing (or even having a snooze, if required!).
- 3pm: Afternoon tea and a casual activity (optional).
- 4pm: Home time.
What activities could you plan?
There are a number of things you can include in your festivities. Here are a few suggestions.
Activities that spark fond memories, such as old family traditions from childhood, could be a really enjoyable experience for someone with dementia. Think about singing traditional holiday songs, watching favourite holiday movies, flicking through old photo albums or paying a visit to our Reminiscence Room. This kind of activity is something all family members can get involved in too, and it's a great way to bring young and older generations together.
There is evidence to support the idea that stimulating the sense of smell can be particularly powerful for people with dementia. If you are planning to cook a traditional holiday recipe, the familiar aromas of the dish may not only stir up an appetite, but they could be a soothing experience for a guest with dementia.
This activity could also become a nice opportunity for discussion. Younger family members may join in and perhaps be interested to know what festivals were like for their grandparents as they were growing up. They may also want to talk about treats that were served in the past.
Some ideas for healthy recipes specific to religious festivals could include:
- Honey cake (Rosh Hashanah)
- Hamentaschen (Purim)
- Doughnuts (Chanukah)
- Macaroons (Pesach)
- Cheese Blintzes (Shavuot)
Create a memory box
Compiling a box with a special selection of items that represent the traditions of the festival you are about to celebrate can be a really fun way of preparing a family member with dementia for the upcoming occasion. It’s another activity that all generations of the family can join in on, and it can be a great way to inspire discussions of past memories.
Examples of items for specific festival boxes could be:
- Rosh Hashanah: an apple, a mini pot of honey, a slice of honey cake.
- Pesach: symbols from the Seder plate (like parsley, a boiled egg, matzah).
- Purim: Hamentaschen, musical instruments, props for fancy dress.
- Chanukah: doughnuts, a dreidel and chocolate coins, a menorah.
Assign a role
For someone with dementia, a good way of feeling connected to an environment is having a role or purpose. If you can think of something straightforward for your guest to do during the celebrations it might make them feel more included. Think of things like passing around the matzah during the Passover meal, or drizzling honey over apples when celebrating Rosh Hashanah.
You could also try including some games or arts and crafts projects to the celebrations. Depending on the festival, there are many options available, including everything from playing dreidel at Chanukah to making patriotic decorations in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmut (Israel Independence Day).
Hanging decorations can also be an enjoyable activity to share amongst family members. A person with dementia may really enjoy decorating a paper garland and helping to drape it across a mantelpiece once completed.
TIP: Make sure you are aware of a person’s limitations before assigning them with any task. It’s not always obvious what they are capable of, and it’s important you don’t put them at risk of injuring themselves.
Tell a good story
Perhaps read or retell the story of the festival you’re celebrating. Many families already do this as part of their tradition on the day, particularly for younger members of the family to enjoy. But this can also be a great way for someone with dementia to connect with the day and re-familiarise themselves with the reasons why they are joining their friends and family to celebrate the occasion.
TIP: Be mindful of overwhelming your guest. Loud noises or excess use of technology could be stressful for someone with dementia.
For more information on supporting someone with dementia, take a look at our overview of Memory loss and dementia. You’ll find links to valuable resources, as well as general tips and advice on making any home a safer place to be, helping them to get out and about and much more.
Have a look at our Jewish festivals page for more information on the key themes of Jewish holidays across the year.
Why not connect with the Jewish Care Interact community on our Forum? If you haven’t registered already, now would be a great time. You can start a ‘new discussion’ in the memory loss and dementia area and ask others about their experiences when inviting a friend or family member with dementia over for the holidays.
The Alzheimer’s Association's page about Holidays and Alzheimer's Families has general advice on how to tackle some of the issues that arise when spending time with a friend or family member with dementia during the holidays.
Above all, remember:
- Be flexible. If the day doesn’t go as planned, sometimes just forgetting the schedule and going with the flow can be a good way to keep stress and anxiety to a minimum.
- Lower your expectations of what you want out of the day, and be mindful to notice when everyone is having a nice time—even if it’s only for fleeting moments throughout the day.
- You have done a great thing in creating an opportunity for everyone to be together, enjoy old memories and traditions and create new experiences.
Enjoy your celebrations!