Envigor Home Care Executive Manager Tracey Silvester says Christmas can be a busy and hurried time, with the pressure for everything to be perfect sometimes creating tension and pressure for the whole family.
“Stressful and unpredictable situations are already unwelcome for a person with dementia or memory loss,” she says.
“Christmas, with all its expectations and ideologies, adds a level of complexity to these situations that often put a strain on the capacity of a person with dementia to manage their already challenging symptoms.”
Ms Silvester offers advice for engaging loved ones with dementia this Christmas...
Provide food that is easy to eat
A table full of food can be overwhelming for a person with dementia. It can be helpful for the person with dementia if they are able to access a lot of snack and finger foods. Place a range of snacks around the living and dining areas for everyone to enjoy. This allows the person with dementia to walk around, digest food and engage with others in the process. Finger food is also great for those who have trouble using cutlery.
Make the portions small and the food on the soft side
Some people with dementia may have difficulty swallowing or chewing their food. Providing them with smaller portions that do not require as much effort to chew and swallow will mean they are more likely to eat. Keeping the texture of the food on the soft side also assists with chewing and swallowing.
Use social cues to ‘announce’ meal time has started
Because orientation to time can become an issue for people with dementia, they may not realise that it is time to eat or that the meal service has commenced. Starting the meal time by saying grace or proposing a toast will bring focus to the start of the meal and might be a helpful cue for the person with dementia that it is time to eat.
Help the person get started with their meal and pay attention to the light
Depending on the progression of the person’s cognitive decline, they may not recognise everyday items that are commonly on a table, such as cutlery. Putting the knife and fork in their hands may prompt them to remember what to do with utensils.
As we age, our eyesight deteriorates. For people with dementia, not only has their eyesight degenerated, so too has their ability to make out shapes and light and dark. Making sure there is adequate lighting at the table will assist the person with dementia in identifying where their plate is on the table and what food is on the plate.
Keep conversations simple
For a person with dementia, overly complex subjects coupled with the confusion associated with being in a room full of people can be distressing.
Using short sentences, avoiding complicated words, and not repeating things multiple times (no matter how much you might want to) will give the person with dementia the time to process the initial topic of conversation.
Drawing on long-term memories is a way the person with dementia can meaningfully participate in a conversation and is also a way for family members to learn more about their lives. If holding a conversation is challenging, most people with dementia enjoy singing their favourite Christmas carols and there is a lot of evidence the music can relax people who are a bit stressed and overwhelmed.
Don’t underestimate the power of familiar surroundings
While that lunch at the restaurant seemed like a good idea at the time, for a person with dementia, being in unfamiliar surroundings can be distressing.
Packing a bag with all the necessary medication and up-to-date information about their needs will reduce the stress for everyone if the person becomes unwell. Include a change of clothes in the event of any accidents and to reduce embarrassment.
Also remember that the person with dementia won’t have as much energy as they used to and might get tired easily. If you can, make a rest space available for them so they can rest if they need to.
Carers need a break, too
Last and definitely not least, don’t forget primary caregivers at Christmas. Caring is a full-time job that is stressful and often unrelenting. Make sure you spend time with the person with dementia and create memories for you and them but don’t forget their carer who might be quite isolated due to their caring responsibilities.