Dear Mary,

My Dad has Parkinson’s related dementia. The holidays are just around the corner and we are having a big family gathering for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Anytime we have a large group over my Dad gets agitated, and more confused. I feel anxious, frustrated and lonely and am thinking about just canceling the Holidays!

Do you have any tips on how we can survive this Holiday Season?

~Nervous in New Haven~


Dear Nervous in New Haven

The holidays can be stressful even when there isn’t the added stress of an aging parent.  In addition, we often have this “idealistic” view of what Christmas and Thanksgiving should look like based on commercials, movies, television specials, and songs.  I think the first step is to recognize that the holidays are most likely going to have to change based on your dad’s situation.  But that doesn’t mean that they can’t still be enjoyable.  First of all, have an open discussion with your family to explain the situation.  Perhaps one of them can host the event.  That way everyone can still get together but your focus can be on your dad and not on everything that goes along with the day.  If you are insisting on having it at your house, then you might need to consider downsizing the numbers.  Or perhaps host a buffet and people can come by at different times throughout the day. Wherever the celebration will occur, make sure there is a quiet room/area for your dad in the event he does get overwhelmed.  People can then visit him a couple at a time versus him being overwhelmed with a big crowd.  Another important tip to surviving the holidays is to be flexible.  You might want dad to be together with the whole family but after an hour into it, he wants to go home.  It is important to be flexible and prepared to shift gears.  Prior to getting together in whatever way you decide, send out an email communication to all involved.  Explain your dad’s current situation and provide them tips on how best to interact with your dad to avoid an overwhelming experience for him. Some families opt to have their traditional celebration but not include the person with dementia on that particular day.  Instead, they will celebrate in a lower key way on a different day (i.e.: the day after Thanksgiving; a couple days after Christmas).  Although to many this doesn’t “feel right”, it is important to understand that the person may not be aware of the specific date.  In addition, it may be better for them, and the family, to have a low key celebration on a different day than a high stressed, overwhelming one on the actual day.  Finally, a question that I think is important to ask in regards to the holiday celebrations is “Is this my need or is this dad’s need?”.  And often time that simple question will help point families in the right direction.

Please know there are resources that are available.  For information on services available in your area, please contact our community at 203-533-7287.


Mary Underwood is a leading educator on dementia, her philosophy is reflective of her education, work experience, and first hand caregiving interactions. Working in Memory Care for over 25 years her wealth of experience has led her to develop a Care Philosophy which includes techniques and training models that now are used by families and professionals working or living with dementia or other brain changes throughout the United States.

Mary has served in a wide variety of leadership and advisory positions in professional organizations at both state and national levels, including the Alzheimer's Association. Mary is a board member of CALA and is currently the Senior VP of Memory Care at ARTIS Senior Living.