Color & Control:

Recreating Family Holiday Time

By Rick Lauber and Bobbi Junior

The holidays won’t be the same this year with Dad in the nursing home. Maybe we shouldn’t even bother celebrating.


There are currently nearly five million seniors in Canada, and many of them reside in nursing homes. Poor health and reduced mobility mean that some may feel unable to join the family at a son’s or daughter’s home to celebrate the upcoming holidays or special family celebrations. Perhaps Grandma always made a traditional family dish, while Grandpa always carved the turkey and wore his blinking holiday tie. But once they move into a nursing home and are in failing health, everything becomes different.

Family caregivers, already struggling to provide help and support, are faced with important questions: How do we involve Mom or Dad, or grandparents, in our celebrations this year, and how can we maintain our family’s holiday traditions? After all, they remain integral family members and can still be included in celebrations.

cs-care1When seniors can’t leave a care home, families can still bring the holidays to them—all it takes is a little creativity and flexibility.
Here are a number of ideas:

Involve children in the planning: With their gleeful smiles and laughter, youngsters can bring plenty of joy. A child can provide a special drawing that can be displayed on a wall to brighten up a senior’s room. Alternatively, a child could help mix up a batch of holiday cookies to share.

Visit mindfully: When dealing with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, limit the number of visitors at one time to lessen the senior’s feeling of being overwhelmed. Let the senior person lead the conversation and join in when appropriate. Also consider the ramifications of food offerings: If you bring an ice cream treat, for example, bring along a bowl and spoon in case the ice cream melts before it’s finished, as well as a napkin (or two) in case things get messy.

Decorate: You can make the long-term care room feel more “like home” by displaying seasonal cards from friends and family on a string on the wall or by hanging a traditional wreath on the door. Bring an ornament or two to place on a counter or shelf, but keep any prized family displays at home, as other residents may unknowingly grab things and hide them away as their own.

Share your traditional dinner: Whether you’re serving up turkey, sweets or dumplings, bring a plate over to the care centre so you can share familiar dishes—and some quality time—with your family member. Before doing this, of course, be sure to check ahead with care staff, and be mindful of special diets and allergies.

Bring a treat for the staff: Decorated cookies or boxed chocolates marked with a note saying “Happy Holidays—Help Yourself!” can be a great way for families and loved ones to share their appreciation for the care home’s hard-working staff.

Keep things quiet: Recognize that your parent or grandparent (along with others at the care home) may become startled or agitated when children let out excited shrieks. Everyone will have a much better time if you bring in only one or two of the grandchildren at a time, and if you keep the visit short.

Time your visits: Does your parent take a regular nap after lunch? Has Alzheimer’s disease affected your grandparent’s ability to interact? When do the residents begin descending on the dining room for dinner? Set aside your own expectations and schedule, as older people may be unable to keep up your pace. Say goodbye if you notice they are looking confused or distressed, or if their energy begins to fade.

Keep outings simple and flexible: While your parent may have greatly enjoyed attending a holiday concert last year, you may have to make things easier this time around. Shop for presents online together, or bring in a few items so they can make their choice. Go for a drive around the neighbourhood to enjoy the festive lights and displays.

Download holiday movies: When you can’t all get out to the theatre, bring the movie to them! Download a selection of favourite holiday films on a laptop, bring a bag of popcorn, and set up the laptop by the bed for everyone to watch together.

Music matters: Gather a few friends and/or relatives together to form a chorus group: Offering the gift of song to a nursing home can cheer residents and staff alike. Bring CDs of your own favourite holiday songs (just be careful to keep the volume low out of respect for roommates or neighbours who may be disturbed by the noise).

How will your family tailor the festive traditions to fit your loved one’s circumstances this year? While celebrations may need to be adjusted, this special time of year can still be enjoyed, since people always matter more than tradition.

Rick Lauber is the author of Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians, available at bookstores and on Get more info at Bobbi Junior, author of The Reluctant Caregiver, writes and speaks about caregiving and dementia. Visit her at


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