How to have a dementia-friendly Christmas
Getting the family together at Christmas time can be one of life’s great joys, but it can also present some difficulties for people living with dementia. The noise, extra people or change in routine can be an overwhelming experience and may cause additional anxiety. It is important to consider how you can enjoy your time together, while keeping stress to a minimum.
Here are our 6 top tips to help your family include those with dementia at your Christmas gathering.
Plan ahead before Christmas day.
People living with dementia usually appreciate familiar surroundings, so if possible, host Christmas lunch at a location familiar to them. For those in advanced stages of dementia, you might want to consider having a smaller gathering at their residential care home. For those able to come out, choose a designated driver to pick them up and take them home. The driver may need to leave Christmas lunch early if your loved one with dementia gets too tired or overwhelmed.
Consider packing a small bag with any medication, and a change of clothes in case of any mishaps. Also make sure the person with dementia is seated at a spot at the table with quick and easy access to the toilet. Setting aside a quiet room they can retreat to is also a good idea, in case they need some rest.
If family members have not seen your loved one with dementia for a while, you may want to call them beforehand to explain any changes in their appearance, personality or speech. Then family members will be able to adjust their expectations, and prepare themselves to include your loved one on the day.
Include the person with dementia in the preparations.
People living with dementia still like to be involved and contribute whenever they can, so try to involve them in the Christmas preparations at a level that suits them. For example, people with dementia could help decorate the Christmas tree, lay the table, fold serviettes, choose gifts, or wrap presents. Make sure that you give them jobs that they will be able to do easily. Don’t worry if preparations aren’t perfect – it’s more important that your loved one feels part of the Christmas celebrations.
Be considerate in conversation.
People with dementia can be part of conversations, but may find the chatter of the Christmas table challenging. Remember to slow down when you speak. Use eye-contact and simpler sentences. Ask the person with dementia questions to engage them in the conversation, but wait patiently for their reply, as they can take longer to process their thoughts. If the person with dementia is not able to speak, it’s okay. Just to sit with them and hold their hand, as touch can be reassuring.
People with dementia can often understand much more than they can say, so have a few good stories ready to share. To spark conversation, you could also bring photos from your own life to show your loved one on a larger-sized screen, such as an iPad.
If your family has children, you can prepare them beforehand by asking them to think of a story or two to share about their friends, or fun things they enjoy doing. Make sure loud music isn’t playing during lunch, as this can make the conversation harder to hear. Also check that the room is well lit so your loved one with dementia can see everyone’s faces.
Serve manageable meals.
Some people with dementia have trouble with different aspects of eating, such as using cutlery, chewing and swallowing. Having finger food for everyone can be a simple way to make life easier. Sometimes people with dementia remember how to use cutlery if it is placed directly into their hands, as it triggers their muscle memory for this task. You may need to cut up the turkey or other food into bite-sized bits. Also make sure there are soft foods available, as these are easier to chew and swallow.
A change in routine can be upsetting for those with dementia so, if possible, schedule Christmas meals at the same time the person with dementia would normally eat. Don’t have table decorations that look like food, such as artificial holly, sweets or fruits. This could be confusing and potentially dangerous if your loved one with dementia tries to eat them.
Share the joy… and the load!
If you are the person with the primary caring load, consider ways to include other members of the family in the caring. This can bring joy to others as they feel they can help. For example, ask someone else to take the person living with dementia to the shops to buy some gifts, to a Christmas service at church, or to carols in the park. People with dementia are at high risk of social isolation, so getting others involved in their care can be a positive way to ease any feelings of loneliness. To ease the burden for yourself, ask others in the family to contribute to the Christmas meal, or help tidy the house. Think of your family as a team and consider ways everyone can share the load.
Bring back those happy memories
People living with early-stage dementia can often remember things from long ago, so you might want to put together a photo album of some of their significant life events and share the photos with the whole family. You could also record a public event such as Carols in the Domain and play it after lunch for a quiet and enjoyable break. Your loved one with dementia might remember the songs and enjoy the music.
Remember if things don’t go to plan, that’s okay. Just be flexible and try to enjoy the Christmas for what it is, not what you think it should be. You might just find joy in unexpected places this Christmas.