November 25, 2003
Holiday Tips to Include Memory Impaired Persons And Those with Behavioral Problems
With the holidays approaching, persons with memory impairment or behavioral
problems may not feel comfortable in large family gatherings. However, there is
much that loved ones can do to make these individuals a part of the holiday
Daniel Sewell, M.D., director of the Senior Behavioral Health Unit at the
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Medical Center, offers several
suggestions for helping persons with memory impairment or behavioral problems to
get the most enjoyment out of family gatherings during the holidays:
- Plan ahead. If the individual is vulnerable to over-stimulation, limit the
activities or length of time in which he or she is included. For example, don’t
let dinner continue on for multiple hours.
- Establish a quiet room in the home, so that the family member can step out of
the hustle and bustle for a calm moment.
- Budget in naptime, especially if the loved one is accustomed to daily naps.
- Assign a family member to be that day’s companion to the elderly member, to
monitor how he or she is doing and to make sure they feel comfortable.
- If the get-together is in the home of the person with memory impairment or
behavioral problems, don’t rearrange the furniture. This could be a source of
confusion and anxiety.
- Don’t put out a lot of finger foods, like sweets, especially if the
individual has a problem with impulse control. This could lead to sugar-induced
hyperactivity or an upset stomach.
- Limit or eliminate alcohol consumption, which can provoke bad behavior or
interfere with medications.
- Break down complicated tasks and involve the individual in a simple, helpful
preparation task, such as greasing one of the cooking pans or peeling potatoes.
This aids self-esteem and helps him or her feel a sense of contribution to the
- Engage everyone, including the memory-impaired, with reminiscing. Often,
individuals with memory problems can recall the past but forget recent events or
conversations. By getting them to talk about the past, younger family members
can be exposed to their roots and the memory-impaired will feel validated for
their perspective on family history.
- Avoid criticism that can embarrass or shame the older person. For example,
when they forget a recent conversation, refrain from saying “don’t you
“All of these suggestions need to be individualized for each person and their
specific needs,” Sewell says. “These folks can get lost in the shuffle and chaos
of happy family gatherings. So, just be sensitive and loving. And plan ahead.”
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