Bucks Advent Calendar: Friday 15 December – Make it a caring Christmas for those with dementia

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Date: 15th Dec 2017

Ruth Trout, senior lecturer in acute care and dementia lead at Buckinghamshire New University, offers some tips for supporting people with dementia at Christmas

Whilst Christmas can be fun, with a break from the normal routine and lots of exciting excursions and family visits, for someone with dementia it can be a worrying period.

According to the charity Dementia Friends, 21 million people in England are estimated to have a close friend or family member with dementia. Those people, with just a few adjustments, can help make Christmas a less stressful and more enjoyable experience for their loved one.Those with dementia may need extra help at Christmas

Routine and familiarity are important for people with dementia, allowing them to feel secure and relaxed. Therefore families should consider the impact of their Christmas plans on their family member who has dementia.

It is important to include everyone in the Christmas celebrations, but the person with dementia may not have the same expectations and understanding of the season as the rest of the family.

Your ideas of a good Christmas might not match theirs and often people with dementia do not have any insight into how their behaviour and comments might affect other people, potentially causing friction within the family group.

Therefore some planning and understanding is required to make Christmas fun for the whole family.

Thinking ahead and having contingency plans in place can be an effective way of minimising stress for all concerned. Here are some suggestions for making the festive season run smoothly:

  • How can you help the person with dementia plan for Christmas? Can you take them shopping for food and gifts and help guide them. Somewhere not too busy and hectic. Or depending on their stage of dementia, perhaps you need to do all the preparation for them to relieve anxieties.
  • Consider the need for decorations and lights in the individuals’ home. New household items might be confusing and could potentially be unsafe. If you install decorations and leave the twinkly lights on, who is going to turn them off? Might they overheat?
  • Can you sensitively bring Christmas to the person with dementia’s house rather than taking them somewhere they aren’t familiar with? Or if you are taking them out, make sure it is to a place they are familiar with and where they are likely to feel relaxed. Even if it isn’t that persons ‘turn’ for Christmas this year.
  • Remember that the person with dementia might not recognise everyone – even close family members. If that happens, don’t be offended, don’t tell them ‘you do know me’ – that will just confuse and potentially upset them. Take your lead from the individual, building a closeness as the day progresses and the person feels more comfortable with you.
  • Think about the practicalities of gifts you buy. A person with dementia is unlikely to be able to learn how to use a new CD player. Consider gifts that will be meaningful to the individual, potentially bringing back memories – A voucher for afternoon tea, a book about the story of the Queens 70 year marriage with lots of photos of the Queens wedding and younger days to reminisce about, A CD of a favourite singer, pictures from a popular holiday destination, a favourite plant. Or buy practical gifts – slippers, handkerchiefs, soap and flannel (not modern shower gel). These things can be used. And don’t expect a gift in return. Present buying might not have entered the person with dementia's head.
  • If you are having party games, plan an ‘old fashioned’ one that the person with dementia can easily take part in. Pass the parcel perhaps. And for other games have the person with dementia as an ‘extra’ on the team so they feel involved but it doesn’t matter if they can’t fully take part.
  • Be considerate. Someone with dementia may feel overwhelmed by lots of noise so be aware that whilst the person is there the environment may need to be calmer and quieter. Keep an eye on them and if they are looking stressed or anxious move to another room and listen to some familiar carols or put a familiar musical in the DVD player to relax and re-orientate them. Or suggest a nap.
  • Be prepared to end the festivities or take the person home early. Once the individual has disengaged and wants to leave, there is no point trying to persuade them to stay. The individual might become difficult and unpleasant if made to stay longer than they want to. Take them home happy and in a good mood. You can always call in later if you want to.

We all know how stressful Christmas can be, even when we have full cognitive function. Having an insight into the world the person with dementia lives in can help facilitate a happy Christmas for everyone.

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