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Making Christmas more dementia-friendly

Preparation for the holidays can be stressful and tiring even under the best of circumstances, but for families and caregivers of people with dementia, the holidays can be extra difficult. 

Key points:

  • Making some small adjustments can make your Christmas gathering inclusive and dementia friendly

  • Try to keep the person with dementia in a regular routine over the  

  • All family and friends attending a celebration should be aware of the person with dementia and how their dementia may present

Family assisting older woman with dementia
Guests should be aware that the older loved one with dementia still wants and enjoys conversation and laughter. [Source: iStock]

However, some planning and considerations can go a long way to making the holidays a great source of pleasure for everybody, especially a person with dementia.

While some family traditions during the holidays may need to be adjusted to some degree, they can still be enjoyed by all in the family.

There is no one right or wrong way to do Christmas with your loved one with dementia, so there is no need to never worry about meeting the expectations of your family and relatives - make your Christmas unique!

Role of the carer

It is understandable that carers would feel overwhelmed and have a sense of dread when getting closer to the holiday. They may even feel obligated to keep up with holiday traditions even though they are caring for a person with dementia.

A carer may also feel worried about participating in traditional celebrations as they fear that any changed behaviour from the person with dementia may be received negatively by the family.

There are a number of ways you can make Christmas celebrations more dementia-friendly so that the person with dementia can experience and enjoy Christmas along with the rest of the family.

These tips include:

  • Hosting a Christmas celebration over brunch or lunch, rather than dinner. Some people with dementia can experience a restless period during afternoon and evening, which is sometimes known as 'sundowning'. Having a Christmas dinner might exacerbate the effects of sundowning, so plan a daytime meal instead

  • Spread the organisation around, you shouldn't be handling everything by yourself. Ask your relatives to bring a plate of food along so it can reduce the amount of work you have to do

  • Be open and honest about dementia with your family. Sometimes they may avoid the subject because they don't understand or don't want to make you upset. Caring for a person with dementia will have a huge impact on your life, so it's important they understand what dementia is about

  • If you have a large family, try to spread people out through the house or outside, as large gatherings can cause a person with dementia to experience anxiety

  • Organise Centre Based Care Respite (CBRC) for your loved one for a couple days leading up to the celebration. This gives you time to prepare for the event, and even rest, while knowing the person with dementia is safe

  • Make time for a 'mourning period'. Christmas holidays are often a time for reflection around grief or loss, so try to acknowledge this within yourself and consider the future to come positively so you can enjoy the Christmas festivities less burdened

Preparing the person with dementia

Any unexpected events can result in a person with dementia experiencing increased emotions, like frustration or anxiety. Holiday gatherings are no different, however, involving the person with dementia in the activities and preparation for the event can make them feel more comfortable with what is to come.

They could assist with preparing food, wrapping presents, decorating the home or setting the table. It can also be a good idea to attempt to keep the person with dementia to as normal a routine as possible so they don't get too confused during the Christmas planning.

This could mean allocating time for Christmas tasks in between their normal routine and providing rest time.

To reduce unsettled behaviours, you can try:

  • Reducing the number of people attending or make sure rooms aren't too crowded

  • Keep Christmas tunes and noise to background music, as loud sounds can be very unsettling to a person with dementia

  • Keep light intensity consistent, not too bright or too dark

  • Watch how much they eat and drink, as Christmas food can be quite rich and you don't want the person with dementia to overindulge. Putting together a plate of food for them can help with this

  • Try to keep regular routines and sleep patterns intact. This could mean having everyone leave by a certain time or encouraging the person with dementia to undertake some of their normal routines

Preparing the guests

Before inviting your guests over, they should all be aware that your loved one has dementia and that this will change how the Christmas party will run.

Make sure everyone is informed about it before they attend, including any specific behaviours the person with dementia has or may present.

This could be:

  • Memory loss or struggling to remember people or faces

  • Repetition of questions that will require patience

  • There may be unusual behaviour from the older loved one that is not normally acceptable in public

  • Give examples of unusual behaviours as some guests may not be familiar with people with dementia

  • Give family members suggestions on how to interact with the person with dementia or how to manage difficult behaviours

For some families, there can be long periods of time between when a family member has last seen the person with dementia, including pre-diagnosis.

All guests should understand that this may be quite difficult or confronting, especially if the person with dementia doesn't remember them. They should understand that memory loss is a condition of dementia, so they shouldn't take it personally.

Your guests should understand the meaningfulness of being together on Christmas is more important than whether the person remembers.

Make sure your guests are aware that the older loved one with dementia still wants and enjoys conversation, laughter, physical touch and eye contact, even if the person can't communicate back.

Last things to remember

As a primary informal carer, it's important that you also take care of yourself during the holidays and resist any pressure you are feeling to host a traditional Christmas event.

Be strong in your convictions and boundaries for family and friends, including around how dementia can progress and present during events. 

You can prepare yourself, the person with dementia and your guests for Christmas, while giving yourself permission to enjoy the celebration and make many new memories.

What ways do you make your Christmas' more dementia-friendly for your older loved ones? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Dementia
Dementia behaviour changes and challenges

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