Celebrating Christmas with family and friends can be one of life’s greatest joys. For a person living with dementia, though, it can be an overwhelming experience – sometimes resulting in tension and pressure for the whole family.
Here are our tips to help you care for your loved one in the festive season, based on our research conducted through the Dementia Centre by Associate Professor Colm Cunningham and Agnes Houston MBE, who is living with dementia.
1. Be mindful when you speak – encourage confidence by keeping it simple
Conversations can be challenging for someone living with dementia. To help them out, use short and simple sentences, avoid complicated words, and try not to repeat things multiple times. It also helps to slow down when you speak and to wait patiently for the person to respond – it may take them a while to gather their thoughts.
Some sad memories may be more present at Christmas. While these shouldn’t be avoided, Colm suggests that having old photographs or home videos on hand can help to broaden the conversation. And if holding conversation is challenging, then make the most of the musical aspect of Christmas – singing and listening together. You don’t need to have great musical ability; simply playing a Christmas CD can have direct benefits for someone living with dementia, especially if their speech has become impaired.
2. Plan ahead and set aside a quiet space to retreat to
Visiting family and friends for celebrations can take place in a variety of locations often not familiar to the person with dementia. To eliminate undue stress, it’s important to plan ahead as much as possible. To help those living with dementia, be prepared by packing a bag with any appropriate medication and a change of clothes (to avoid embarrassment if the person has not easily found the toilet and an accident has occurred). Appointing a designated driver is also a good idea, in case your loved one feels anxious and needs to be taken home straight away. As family gatherings can be tiring and overwhelming, Colm also suggests having a rest-place in mind. This could be a bedroom that is away from noise and crowds, but close to a well-lit bathroom, where someone living with dementia can take a break from the festivities if they need to.
3. Include familiar moments at mealtime – use social cues
Mealtime traditions can help your loved one navigate Christmas meals more easily. Simple pre-meal traditions like saying grace, making a toast or wishing everyone Merry Christmas before eating can provide a social cue that food is coming, and it is time to eat. It is also important to serve the meal in a well-lit area, as a person living with dementia may have difficulty seeing what is on their plate.
4. Be thoughtful with your menu
Food is a feature at Christmas time and the prevalence of a thoughtful menu including snacks and finger food can greatly benefit the person with dementia. If you can, also try to serve smaller portion sizes of soft food to help those who have difficulty swallowing or chewing. Put food on crockery with contrasting colours so the meal is easy to see and eat. Place lots of finger food throughout the living area, so your loved one can eat nourishing food while walking around and engaging with others – without having to worry about handling cutlery.
5. Help them get started and the importance of light
Depending on the progression of the person’s dementia, they may not recognise generic dining table items, such as cutlery. Putting the knife and fork in the hands of someone living with dementia may prompt the memory of cutlery – having a tactile cue will help trigger what to do with the utensils.
It is also important to consider lighting, as a person with dementia may have trouble seeing what is on their plate. Colm suggests positioning their place-setting in the best lit area, and use plates with a contrasting colour to the meal. Agnes adds the important of seating ensuring that there is easy access to the toilet.
6. Don’t forget about the carers
Carers of people living with dementia work tirelessly to fulfil their valuable role. They deserve a chance to put their feet up at Christmas! Colm urged families not to forget primary caregivers at Christmas as it is a great opportunity to offer them support. Provide them with some time-out by offering to sit with your loved one during mealtime, or to spend time with them during other parts of the day.
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