Bringing a loved one home for Christmas, who suffers with dementia, can be difficult for everyone involved, despite how much you may want the occasion to be a special time for them, you and the family. Maizie Mears-Owen, head of dementia services at Care UK, says it can be hard to balance giving your loved one; a family member, partner or friend, that special Christmas, while juggling supporting different generations, as families and friends come together to celebrate under one roof. Mears-Owen offers advice on how to support a loved one with dementia during the festive season and still make your Christmas a special one.
Prepare for your Christmas with Family Photos
It is a good idea to prepare a loved one living with dementia in advance by talking about who will be there over the Christmas period and who those people are, such as nieces, nephews, grandchildren and neighbours. Photographs are very useful for this as they will help them to recognise faces. Photographs can also be useful because people with dementia may be living in a different decade. It is common for people to believe they are at a younger point in their lives. If this is the case, use older photos to explain who people are.
Embrace How You’re Seen and Help the Younger Ones
Don’t get upset if your loved one gets names wrong during the day. If your elderly aunt calls you mum, for instance, do not get embarrassed and do not correct her. She is just at the point in her mind where you are her mother’s age, or she sees something in you that reminds her of her mum. Embrace it. Be “Mum”. Help her with her food and with opening her presents – she will find it reassuring and calming. Contradicting her will make her feel agitated and confused. Young children, or perhaps your grandchildren, seem to take it all in their stride. However, teenagers can find it upsetting. Not being recognised, or seeing out of character behaviour, can sometimes be confusing, embarrassing and hurtful. It is a good idea to talk the issue over together as a family before Christmas.
Keep Up Your Family Christmas Traditions
Christmas Eve is the time to start tapping into family traditions. If you’ve always made mince pies on Christmas Eve night, for instance, encourage your loved one to help out. They will feel useful and it can start conversations about Christmases past. Reminiscing is vital to increasing wellbeing, so get them talking about their childhood Christmases as well as yours. You might learn things about your childhood that you had forgotten long ago. Perhaps help to trigger some memories by getting everyone to help with trimming the tree, or decorating the rooms of the house. For many families there are special decorations that have special meanings and can bring back lots of memories.
Communicate and Connect with Christmas Carols
Dementia can take its toll on verbal communication skills and language skills can also be affected as dementia progresses. But often people who have communication difficulties can sing along to seasonal music, or tap out along to the beat. Music is a good way to communicate and connect with someone as well as being fun for everyone, old and young. So try listening to a carol concert on the TV or radio, or put on an old CD and sing along to some old Christmas classics.
Have a Quiet Space Away From the Chaos
Christmas mornings can be frenetic, especially if there are young children in the house, so set aside a quiet and comfortable place for your loved one. The hurly-burly of present opening, noisy toys and over-excited youngsters can prove too much for someone whose senses have changed. To avoid confusion and anxiety, offer your guest a cup of tea away from the chaos and perhaps sit and chat with them so they don’t feel left out.
Keep Your Christmas Dinner Simple
The dinner table can be a mine field at Christmas so keep it simple. Dementia can take away depth perception and narrow the field of vision, so keep things fairly clear on the table. Hand out crackers when you are going to pull them, limit the amount of crockery and cutlery on the table and use a tablecloth that contrasts with the plates. White-on-white blends in and your guest will not know where the plate ends and the cloth begins. Also, try not to use plates with patterns as these can cause optical illusions and confusion. It’s also best to avoid crowding the plate. Appetites of people with dementia are often small and lots of food adds to confusion. They can always come back for seconds if they want them.
Play the Old Family Favourites
In the afternoon, watching a Christmas classic of a film can be a comforting way for everyone to spend the afternoon together. Alternatively, play a board game. In the early stages of dementia, people can still follow the rules of card and board games they have played before, so it could be time to get out some of the old family favourites, even if it’s only something simple like Ludo, which everyone can join in with. If a guest’s dementia is more advanced, new games are best avoided.
Don’t Aim for the Perfect Christmas
Finally, to keep your stress levels down, do not aim for perfection. Just because someone is living with dementia at Christmas doesn’t mean they can’t join in the fun and indulgence with everyone else. Try to make time for yourself and don’t feel guilty if everything doesn’t go according to plan. Enjoy the season for what it is and your family for who they are. Happy Christmas.