Alzheimer’s and the Holidays, Part 1 – The Dinner

There is no denying that America is gearing up for the holiday season.  Retailers and ad agencies bide their time until Halloween is over, to really start the barrage of holiday marketing.  It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering that in this day, with 2 working parents and kids with schedules that rival that of a CEO, families need time to plan and organize for these special events.  If they are one of the millions caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, they will really need that extra time to plan and organize the season.

If you are a caregiver, you have probably encountered difficulties with eating and mealtime in general, especially in the later stages of the disease.  As the disease progresses, the appetite may decrease.  This could be due to damage to the senses, such as taste and smell and even sight.  If foods no longer taste good, the person isn’t going to eat it.  Even physical changes and a decrease in motor skills may deter the person from eating. A problem with swallowing is one of the most common and warrants its own article…. Regardless of the reason or reasons, as caregivers we need to do everything we can to insure that the person is eating regularly and as well as possible.   We may have to learn to cook new items or cook old favorites in a new way.  Being flexible is necessary in all facets of dementia care giving; because you never know what challenges will arise tomorrow.

So, back to the holidays.  As a caregiver there will be many things that need to be done before the holidays arrive and are celebrated.  This article will focus on the food/dining element, which for many of us is the most important part!

It’s important to point out that family traditions are a great way to incorporate personalized care, especially at the holidays.  Experts say that smells are the strongest triggers of memories.  For those with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, where memories may not be easily retrieved or lost altogether, food and smells may be strong enough to evoke a “good feeling” even if actual memories are allusive, similar to a smile or a hug.  The person with dementia may not remember someone close to them, but they understand a gentle tone and a kind touch.

Here are some helpful tips for making holiday meals more meaningful for those with dementia as well as less stressful for caregivers and family members:

Simplify Food
. Serve the meal in courses if at all possible.  Seeing a lot of food on the table or their plate may be overwhelming to someone with Alzheimer’s.

Limit Utensils
.  As with the food, too many utensils can create confusion.  It may also be difficult for the person with dementia to utilize utensils properly.  Cut food into bite sized pieces for easier management and limits the utensils at that setting to a single spoon or fork.

Use Solid Colored Dishware.   Dishes with patterns or multiple colors can make seeing the food difficult or make it appear to be unappealing.

Include the Person with Dementia.   Keeping in mind that safety comes first, tasks such as folding napkins or setting the table can be familiar routines that give a sense of purpose and belonging.

Keep Their Routine.  Maintaining a daily routine is one of the best ways to prevent and alleviate anxiety and agitation for those with dementia.  Try to serve the holiday meal at the same time they eat every day.

Create a Calm Environment.
  Loud noises and distractions can make meal time difficult for someone with dementia.  If it is possible, explain to guests the situation.  If this is not an option, then create a peaceful space where the loved one can eat with a few close family members or friends.

Are you a caregiver?  How do you handle large meals, such as Thanksgiving?  Please share your tips and suggestions so that our readers can benefit from your experiences.

Natalie Pic

Meet the Author


Natalie has compiled over eighteen years experience providing outstanding care to people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In addition to being a certified Alzheimer’s and dementia care trainer, McFarland is a licensed continued education instructor for nurses and social workers through the Illinois Department of Professional Regulations. She has also developed several Alzheimer’s research partnerships. Included in those projects were Dr. Virginia Cruz, Ph.D., RN, Associate Professor of SIUE and Dr. George Grossberg, M.D., Medical Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Saint Louis University. Natalie is a graduate of Southern Illinois University.