Christmas is a wonderful time not only for having fun but also for renewing family bonds – and that is particularly true for families with a loved one living with dementia. The season is full of sights, sounds and particularly smells that trigger memories and encourage conversations.
Many people caring for a loved one with dementia have busy lives, with lots of other work and family commitments, but there are many small things you can do in the run-up that will help prepare your relative for the busy season, so they are happy and calm come the big day.
In our 114 homes, activity coordinators have been working on ideas for ‘the 12 days Christmas’: small activities with big impacts that can be done by anyone as Christmas approaches. Take time over a cup of tea to do them and plan to do the longest when you have most time – such as a weekend, particularly when it is wet and you are confined to the house.
Help dementia sufferers through their senses
Smell is one of the most powerful prompts to memory and Christmas is packed with distinctive smells. You and your loved one can smell a stick of cinnamon, a jar of mixed spice or light a Christmas-themed scented candle and talk about when you have smelt it before.
You can combine taste, smell and reminiscence in the kitchen by making family favourites. Mince pies, sausage rolls and mulled wine are easy and practical – and many families have their own recipes. This has many benefits including the opportunity to talk about baking and parties past, and also it helps the person to feel helpful and a useful part of the family.
Christmas traditions can help those with memory loss
Decorating the tree has similar benefits. There are lots of wonderful Christmas baubles and vintage decorations around, so if you are not fortunate enough to have your original Christmas decorations, think about buying one of the modern replicas. You can also sit together and chat as you make paper chains. Kits are available in many craft shops and the activity will help your loved one’s coordination as well as being fun. You can talk about when you used to decorate the tree together and ask them about trees and decorations when they were young. You can put on a DVD of a much-loved Christmas film as you are decorating the tree, or a CD of favourite songs.
Many families include a silver sixpence in a Christmas pudding. Shopping for one in a bric-a-brac shop and cleaning it can be a great time to talk about old money as well as past Christmases.
When you are pushed for time you can do something very simple with your loved one, such as helping them to write a card to a friend. This small activity not only helps them to reminisce but also keeps them in touch with people who have played a role in their life. Some time spent with a photo album has a similar effect. This is also a useful activity if you have guests coming for Christmas. Before the big day find some photos of your guests and talk to your loved one about who they are, so they are not confused on the day.
Christmas Day, with all its hectic activities, can prove confusing for people with dementia. If this is the case, why not create a quieter room or area, using what you have learnt from your conversation where they can retreat if they feel overwhelmed. In this area, include he things you have made or talked about. A DVD of 1970s classics such as Dads Army or Morecambe and Wise may be more to their taste for entertainment. And make sure the smells of the kitchen can drift in, so they know dinner is coming and they feel part of the day in a way that is comfortable to them. Most of all enjoy the happiness of the season together and take lots of photographs to preserve everyone’s memories of happy family times.