Tips to help a loved one living with dementia at Christmas

With Christmas approaching, it’s important to consider how you can best include any friends or loved ones living with dementia.

While no two people experience dementia in the exact same way, dementia often affects the way people process and respond to their environment, writes Nikki-Anne Wilson, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), UNSW Sydney.

Too much stimulation – like a lot of noise and activity at a Christmas party – can be overwhelming and may cause confusion or agitation.

Plan ahead

People with dementia may experience changes in their appetite or food preferences, or difficulties chewing and swallowing. These changes might make some of the things on your festive menu unappetising or difficult to eat. Be guided by the needs and preferences of the person with dementia and keep options limited to one or two special foods if larger banquets are likely to be overwhelming.

Things can change quickly for people living with dementia and their abilities will vary from day-to-day. Try to be flexible and have a backup plan in place. If you’re planning a large event, consider having a smaller gathering with your loved one with dementia and just a few special people.

Keep it familiar

The sudden appearance of Christmas decorations may be overwhelming for a person living with dementia and trigger a negative sensory reaction or distress. Try and put-up decorations familiar and put them up slowly over a period of a few days.

Try to also stick to familiar traditions and routines. Daily routines are an important way of supporting people with dementia. Stick to routine where possible throughout Christmas.

For many people with dementia, long-term memories are less affected than more recent memories. Familiar family traditions can therefore be an effective way to reminisce.  Family keepsakes or memory books can also help connect with stories from past celebrations.

Have a quiet space

Ensure there is a place where the person living with dementia can go if things become overwhelming. Designating a support person who can stay with them throughout the day and take them to a separate room or area away from the action can help to keep things calm.

Having some familiar objects or quiet music in the space can be an effective way to block out the noise of activities and reduce agitation.

Involve the person living with dementia

Ensuring everyone has a role to play may mean modifying tasks to suit the abilities of the person with dementia.

For example, if you’re hosting, try to get your friend or relative with dementia involved in the kitchen by tossing the salad or helping to set the table.

People with dementia are still the same person, even if their abilities have changed or they can no longer communicate their needs and feelings like they used to. It’s important to treat everyone with dignity and try to include your friends and loved ones with dementia in celebrations whenever possible.

Despite best intentions, sometimes it won’t work

Despite the best laid plans, sometimes it won’t be possible to share in festive celebrations with your loved one living with dementia. More advanced dementia, aged care visitor restrictions or even just distance can keep many of us apart from our loved ones.

Be prepared for this separation to bring up your own feelings of grief or sadness. Look after your mental health as well as the person with dementia.

Caring responsibilities still largely fall to women and it’s important to share the load. Where possible, the holidays can be a good time to think about giving primary carers a break to help them recharge for the year ahead.

If you’re caring for someone with dementia and need support, Dementia Australia or Carer Gateway offer useful resources.

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