Supporting a person with dementia at Christmas or during a celebration

The Christmas period is known for togetherness, giving, food, family and celebrating faith. The following ideas can be applied to any celebration, whether a birthday, or family gathering. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or just enjoying time with the family, the following blog will give some ideas on how best to support a person living with dementia during a busy time of celebration.

It’s important to remember that a person with dementia may not experience all, or even any, of the difficulties described. Some may thrive in a busy Christmas environment, watching children play and seeing family get together. But it may be very difficult for others. Being mindful and aware of this will support an enjoyable festive period.

Making Christmas special at home or visiting family

Leading up to Christmas

  • Putting up decorations gradually can be a helpful way to make changes to the home that aren’t too sudden. We know that routine and familiarity are helpful for a person with dementia. Keeping decorations to a minimum may be necessary.
  • Christmas card writing is often a valued task that a person may need some support with. Why not write (or print if you can print labels) the names for your cards, and your loved one can help label the cards.
  • Extended family may try to include you in arrangements and want the person to feel involved and valued. Remember, it’s OK to say no. Celebrating when the person finds it difficult to join in may not be worth doing if it is too distressing. Helping family manage their expectations may be helpful.
  • Families often have their own traditions that are maintained over the years. Examples might be watching a particular Christmas film every Christmas Eve, or having a glass of champagne with Christmas Day breakfast. Try to maintain your valued traditions, or adapt them to suit, such as watching part of the film, or having a low/no alcohol glass of something special.
  • Christmas or any celebration is what you decide it to be. While we have some established norms of what the day looks like, we can choose our own traditions, take the pressure off, and choose how we want to spend the day.

On the day

  • Christmas is often a time of indulgence, with plates piled high. Be mindful of the person’s usual eating habits. If the person is used to having small meals or finger foods, try to maintain the habits that suit them best.
  • When visiting family or hosting, consider having a room dedicated to quietness; a space the person can go and sit with a family member or friend that is away from noise, chaos of excited children, cooking smells and kitchen clatters. The noise and unusual busyness may be overwhelming for the person.
  • People with dementia who experience anxiety are often helped most by routine. It may be helpful to try and keep as much of the day as normal as possible. This might mean a short visit, with much of the day following the usual daily activities and timings.
  • Christmas is a very exciting time for young children. If you know that lots of noise can be distressing for the person, request the parents to give some guidelines in advance, such as no shouting or climbing. Help the children feel involved by asking them to offer the person sweets or chocolates you know they like.
  • If you’re the guests at another home for Christmas, be prepared for the possibility of leaving and returning home to the familiar home environment. A day of decorations, different food and presents can be tiring for a person or may lead to increased anxiety.

Making Christmas special for someone in a care setting

  • Speak to the care setting about any activities or plans for the Christmas period. Many places will have concerts, a party or pantomine, or even have the local school coming to do a nativity play. Combining your visit during one of these events can be a lovely experience to share.
  • Don’t assume that the person will know it’s Christmas. It is very common for someone to be unaware of the external cues such as tinsel and decorations and care staff wearing Santa hats. Keeping Christmas low key might be the best thing for the person, maintaining the usual weekly routine and visit schedule that you know works well for them.
  • Coordinate with family to arrange who is visiting when. Check with the setting on their visiting policy as COVID-19 restrictions continue to change. Staggered visits may be more suitable for some people; having visitors on consecutive days can be tiring and overstimulating, so spreading across the two-week Christmas and New Year period may be better.
  • Write a letter or a card using large print. Involve family and get others to contribute. They can email letters to you that you can print off and send or deliver together. Drawings by children will often bring a smile. Everyone enjoys receiving a letter or card, especially if they are feeling isolated.
  • If possible, prepare and drop off a care package wrapped as a present that the person will enjoy opening. This may include a new pair of slippers, a book, magazine and favourite treats or snacks if appropriate.
  • Faith-related activities may help to promote a sense of belonging and support the person’s spiritual life. Many religious organisations have services and ceremonies available online.

Try to remember that to many people with dementia, Christmas is just another day. Being adaptable and flexible to the individual needs of the person is vital to having an enjoyable day.

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