Cheerful Tips for Remembering and Reminiscing around the Holidays

Celebrating reminiscing during cooking up memories

Let’s take a minute and journey back to holidays of the past. Where do you find yourself? Are you sitting at a crowded table filled with so much food there’s barely any room for place settings? What do you smell? Is there a food served each year during the holidays that always makes you think of family celebrations? What do you see? Are you surrounded by a sea of wrapping paper as everyone opens gifts? What do you hear? Are relatives telling stories and sharing memories? Some of the strongest memories we have of the holiday season are available so vividly through our senses and reminiscing. How do we keep these memories and traditions in the forefront of our celebrations with someone who is living with memory impairment? Many of you who have cared for someone with Alzheimer’s have a better understanding of this than most. As we head into the holiday season, you may be more prepared than you realize to creatively share the experience with family and friends, either on a smaller scale or virtually. We spoke with Laurelwood at The Pinehills Avita Program Director, Alison Stockman, about tips to make the most out of the holiday season when planning around someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Reminiscing is a valuable tool to use when caring for someone with memory impairment. Although they may not be able to tell you the exact recipe for their favorite chocolate chip cookies, or who taught them how to bake, they will remember the smell of the cookies, the taste of the chocolate and the feel of the dough as they are being made. At Northbridge, we tie this all together in one of our Signature Programs, Cooking up Memories!

Laurelwood at The Pinehills Avita Program Director, Alison, has a lot of experience working with individuals with memory impairment, but she also has personal experience about how the senses really draw memories of the holidays.

I remember making Christmas sugar cookies with my mom every year.  Mom would take out her favorite sugar cookie recipe, Aunt Kristle’s Sugar Cookies, she could whip up the recipe in a minute. My favorite part was I would always get to lick the beaters! As we waited for the dough to chill, mom and I would look at the cookie cutters and take out all the sprinkles. Next, mom would grab her well-used rolling pin and the fun started. We worked side by side rolling, decorating and putting the cookies in the oven. The smell of vanilla that would come from the oven was amazing. When the cookies came out of the oven, I would wait a few minutes for them to cool and then sample one for myself! These are the fond memories that come to mind every Christmas or whenever I smell sugar cookies baking.


What can we learn from Alison’s story? Maybe it’s not about how many people you have in your house during the holidays, but the smells and traditions shared that make them special. When Alison mentions getting those feelings whenever she smells sugar cookies baking, this is a form of reminiscing and something that has been used in Memory Care programming for a long time.  Reminiscing is so much fun and can come in many different forms: from baking to pictures and even textures. Individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia are successful in reminiscing because it is a form of comfort. Reminiscing helps foster memories.

It’s not all about feelings though, did you know the scents and tastes of cinnamon, yeast, vanilla, baked goods, and herbs stimulates the limbic system? This system is the emotional center of the brain and triggers memories and decreases anxiety.

At Laurelwood, Alison starts Cooking up Memories with her residents by looking at old cookbooks, stimulating the brain with sight.  Then the ingredients are taken out and residents start following along with the recipe. Along the way everyone is activating their senses by sampling the ingredients. Maybe it’s eating chocolate chips or kneading dough or smelling cinnamon.  Alison makes sure a batch of cookies is baking while residents are making theirs so the kitchen smells like cookies – then they are ready to eat when the residents are finished. With reminiscing activities it’s about the process, not the end result.

A tip from Alison: faster recipes are best because the person in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s will remember making it more clearly if it is eaten right away.  

Technology and reminiscing can go a long way in making our celebrations feel a bit more normal, even if not everyone can be together in the same room. Here are a few tips from Alison about making the most of celebrations this year.

  1. Old pictures: we all enjoy looking at old pictures from Hanukkah or Christmas. This can be turned into a group activity while on zoom or shared in person among family or people you live with.
    A tip from Alison:
    when sharing pictures over zoom make sure whoever is sharing the picture is sitting with the individual with memory impairment. Have the zoom call on, but do not direct attention to it. Zoom calls with multiple people can be over-stimulating for individuals with memory impairment. Make sure everyone sees the picture you are referencing, then have everyone talk about it together. Then, if possible, have people in the picture tell the story about when it was taken. If you are sitting with the person with memory impairment and there is only one person on the Zoom call it is ok to have them talk directly to each other. If there is more than one person on the Zoom call it might be confusing for the person with memory impairment.  The key to sharing memories and photos is presenting, not testing.  For example, testing someone might be asking, “Do you know who that is in the picture?” That makes an individual with a memory impairment very uneasy, and they may feel put on the spot.
  2.  Being involved: including the person with memory impairment to help with the preparations is key in fostering fun and enjoyment during the holidays. This can be as easy as asking them to hold the menorah while you clear off the end table. While they hold the menorah they can feel it, look at it, and maybe even faintly smell where it has been stored. All these sensory inputs foster reminiscing.A tip from Alison: While the person with memory impairment is holding the menorah you can say things like, “I remember your mother having this menorah in the living room at your house on Winter Street.”
  3. Other inclusive tasks: putting cards in envelopes, holding the tape while wrapping gifts, going for rides to see the lights.  Remember, it does not need to be elaborate. Something as simple as watching White Christmas, The Boston Symphony Orchestra Holiday Concert or listening to favorite Christmas Carols are all great reminiscing activities. Music stays with individuals with memory impairment the longest, so it may be the key to unlocking those precious memories.

As we get ready for the holiday season, maybe we can all learn a little something about the power of reminiscing.

Discover life at a Northbridge community 

If you’re considering senior living for yourself or a family member, we hope you’ll visit one of our communities. You’ll find a maintenance-free, activity-filled and engaging lifestyle to help support your wellness goals. 

You’ll also discover many benefits in a Northbridge Senior Living community, including our Signature Program S.T.A.R. Club (Sharp Thinking, Active Residents) – which offers our residents several activities to participate in with others, including: 

  •       Daily exercise group
  •       Walking club
  •       Tai Chi & Yoga
  •       Nutritional classes
  •       Library and book club
  •       Museum outings
  •       Artists in residence program
  •       Multi-generational music
  •       Genealogy Generations 

We’re here to answer any of your questions and invite you to download our complimentary guide Just the Facts: Your Guide to Memory Care. Please contact us if we can provide further information or if you would like to schedule a personalized tour. 

Download Just The Facts: Your Guide to Memory Care

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