‘Don’t write people off’ – finding hope at Christmas

People living with dementia or depression, experiencing grief and loss or facing their final days can find Christmas meaningful and hopeful, according to John Swinton, Professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care and a HammondCare Associate Consultant.

HammondCare has released three short videos for Christmas, featuring Prof Swinton, to offer encouragement and support to people in these situations and for their families and friends, acknowledging the expectations and fears often experienced at this time of year.

“If we think dementia is the end of a person’s life… then the hope and expectation of Christmas will be part of that. We might think, well maybe they don’t really enjoy Christmas,” Prof Swinton said in one of the videos focused on dementia.

“But if you think of dementia as a meaningful human experience, in which people need to have certain needs addressed in different ways, and the possibility of finding hope in Christmas is a reality for everybody, then you have a very different scenario.

“The key thing is to make sure you don’t, consciously or unconsciously, write people off. And remember, people with dementia will enjoy Christmas, because you’re there.”

For patients and families facing the reality of someone’s last Christmas, Prof Swinton advises being honest and open about the difficulties while making the most of the time.

“Within the Bible, joy doesn’t simply mean happiness, it also includes suffering and brokenness,” Prof Swinton says in a video focused on palliative care and mental health.

“One way we can help people who are dying move toward Christmas positively, is to give them the opportunity to speak about the sadness, as well as to speak about the joy.”

In regard to mental health, Prof Swinton said living with depression during the Christmas season can be difficult.

“Because culturally there is a real emphasis on being happy, there can be a significant problem for people who are living with depression. If everyone around you is happy, and you are expected to be happy, that’s a pretty miserable place to be.

So finding ways to acknowledge sadness, even in the midst of happiness, is something that is important.

Some churches have what they call ‘Blue Services’ where people who are going through grief or illness, gather together just to articulate that… and at the end of the service people feel they have spoken to God about the lostness that they have… but at the same time, accept some of the happiness."

In a third video, Prof Swinton discusses the benefits of a series of resources known as Faith for life, specifically designed and written to support the spiritual wellbeing of people living with dementia, their carers and families.

“Faith for life is a set of resources designed to enable people, particularly with advanced dementia, to experience their faith. It contains hymns and readings and various other things so people can sit down and actually work together to create an atmosphere in which faith is felt, as well as thought.”

Prof Swinton is the founder of the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability in Scotland but is currently in Australia working as an Associate Consultant with HammondCare. He is the author of the highly acclaimed Dementia: Living in the memories of God and has a background as a mental health nurse and chaplain.