How to Consider a Change in a Holiday Tradition

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By Beth A. D. NolanDecember 16th, 2021

How to Consider a Change in a Holiday Tradition

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by Beth A.D. Nolan, Ph.D.,

PAC Director of Research and Policy

As I write this, we’ve just finished Thanksgiving—traditionally a family-focused, harvest festival in the United States. We are headed into a slew of several religions’ holidays clustered in December. Unlike the busy Christmas season, for me growing up in Michigan, the purest form of a family holiday came with Thanksgiving. There are no gift-giving requirements, no large work parties, no significant decorating; just a meal with family. So many of these social events change when dementia enters the picture. How can we consider reframing the usual directives to simplify and make holidays smaller to make them more meaningful?

I’d like us to think back to the best memories of Thanksgiving dinner of our childhood –or of any harvest festival and food-based holiday that lives strong in your culture or in your mind.

What foods did you have?

Who celebrated together?

Where did you sit to eat?

What decorations do you recall seeing every year?

What prayers did you recite?

I’m drawn to thinking of my own experience with the recent passing of a loved one and my memories of holidays with family living with dementia.

What about those memories made your simple holiday so special? Perhaps the purity of many harvest festivals comes down to the fact that the holiday itself is the act of pausing, giving thanks, and sharing a meal with those closest to you: human to human contact.

Many of these seemingly simple acts, such as our dining rooms filled with people laughing, talking, and sharing a meal, are hard for many with brain change. For others with dementia, the difficulty comes with moving from their own safe place to somewhere else and adds to the stress of the holiday.

What could we do when we or someone we love develops dementia and it feels as though all our holiday traditions are changing? How can we help identify what is more important that we could recognize as familiar and comforting? Let’s see if we can reframe our holidays to making them more meaningful. Consider how you might do this:

1.    Take stock. Get connected with your loved one and bring out some pictures. Get a cup of coffee or tea and take a moment together. See what you and they find most important about holiday memories, or perhaps what they notice in the pictures. If you are living with dementia, think about what tends to be your trigger.

Is your trigger noise? Number of people? Lighting? Location? Preparation work?

Decide which are the small things that bring joy in those memories.

2.    Make a plan. With a partner, identify what you would like, want, or need (as a person living with dementia, or as a duo). Maybe re-framing this discussion this way, instead of trying to simplify a holiday: let’s build a holiday from the most important pieces up.

3.    Communicate. Unmet expectations are the hallmark of disappointment. Connecting with other and using positive action starters are a great way to practice your PAC skills and help others to help you. Try, for example,

You’re always so good at noticing when I’ve had too much. I could use your help… or You are just an amazing host—tending to everyone’s needs. Tell me about that skill of hosting.

How might a connection and an action starter help move forward the possibility that a holiday is changed to support the celebration for all?

Holidays, family dinners, or regular meetings with friends can be emotion-filled events. Let’s see if we can work together to make social events and holidays a friendly event for all.

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