This time of year is full of expectations for good food, time enjoyed with family, and relaxation. Living with dementia or supporting someone with dementia over the holidays can mean experiencing the occasion slightly differently, but this doesn’t mean you or the person you care for can’t join in with the celebrations. With a few adjustments, you can continue to enjoy the festivities with the people who matter to you.
Tips for People Living with Dementia and Carers
Tip 1: Simplify Your Festivities
Despite the association between the words ‘holiday’ and ‘relax’, we all know that big celebrations involve a lot of preparation and sometimes stress. If you’re living with dementia or supporting someone with dementia over the holidays, consider scaling back. Pick the most important traditions and put the rest by for another year. You can retain the most crucial aspects of what the holiday means to you and your close circle without incorporating every single usual activity, food, and visit, just because that’s the way you’ve always done it. Maybe this is an opportunity to banish forever the traditions that you don’t like!
There may also be traditions that you love, but that have become more stressful than joyful. If you’re finding it tougher to cope with certain customs, consider omitting them, however beloved they are. Holidays are ultimately about sharing happiness, love, and gratitude; keeping to that spirit of things is more important than tradition.
Tip 2: Lift Your Mood by Getting into Nature
It’s very normal to experience emotional or energy dips over the holidays; annual festivities are a cyclical reminder of how things have changed. They can evoke memories of people who are no longer with us, or of how different our situation was at this time in past years.
Prepare for these potential feelings or combat them when they arise by doing things to help you engage in the present. There’s nothing better for this than spending time with nature; this is because connecting to nature causes the release of ‘happy hormones’ and neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. Take a short walk around your local park and notice how much easier it is to see the squirrels among the tree branches at this time of year, or make time to sit with a cup of tea and watch the birds from your window.
Tip 3: Communicate in Advance
If you’re going to be seeing family and friends that you haven’t seen in a while, be honest about any new symptoms that you have been experiencing, or that the person you care for has been experiencing if you’re a carer. Let them know what to expect. Being open can not only give you the chance to ask for help if you need it, but allow you to be clear about the kind of help you need and want, and the kinds of things that you don’t need help with. On their side, it can remove any awkwardness that could come from not knowing how to react when faced with the unexpected.
Tip 4: Aim for a Distraction-Free Environment
Some types of dementia can make focusing your attention a challenge. In order to create the best environment for engaging in the important aspects of the celebrations, switch off the TV or radio while there are other things going on. If you’re going to play music, try keeping the volume fairly low, and opt for calmer festive-themed tunes over more energetic ones.
Tip 5: Create a Designated Quiet Space
There’s often a lot happening all at once on big celebration days. Choose a warm, quiet room or corner of the house that you can go to for some alone time if things begin to feel overwhelming, or that you can point out to the person you care for if you’re a carer. Let anyone present know that this is what that space is for, so that they know it’s not the place for playing games, having conversations, or listening to music. After taking some time to gather your thoughts and recharge your inner battery, you can head back into the fray with a clearer head. If you’re a carer, you can invite the person you care for back into the fold when they seem calmer, or when something is about to happen that you know they wouldn’t want to miss.
Tips for Carers
Tip 6: Put Holiday Decorations Up Slowly
Decorating your home for the holiday you celebrate is a beloved tradition in many households, but it has the potential to disorientate people living with dementia. Try putting decorations up bit by bit, day by day, instead of all at once. This gradual transition gives the person you care for more time to adjust to their environment changing, which can lessen confusion and anxiety. Ask them to help, if that’s an option. Perhaps they can choose where certain pieces go, or maybe they can help you decide on colour options.
Tip 7: Be Prepared for Repetition
It can be frustrating to have to repeat yourself multiple times, or to hear the same story several times a day. However, it’s common for this to happen when caring for someone who has dementia. Maybe you live with the person you care for and are used to this; maybe they live elsewhere and are staying with you for the occasion. Either way, mentally prepare yourself for repetition, and for both their and your own sake, try not to let it get to you. It can be helpful to remind yourself that someone living with dementia can’t change the way their brain retains information. Reacting positively to anecdotes, even when you’ve heard them many times before, will encourage participation and inclusion.
Tip 8: Involve the Person with Dementia in Small Ways
The person you care for may not be able to participate in preparations or activities the same way they once did, but that doesn’t mean they have to sit out altogether. Have them sit and talk with you while you write cards, and get them to sign their name or add stamps to the envelopes. If they can remember them, ask them to recite the blessings over the candles while you light them; this is often the kind of thing that the brain retains even after other types of memories begin to fade.
Tip 9: Don’t Drop the Daily Routine
If you’ve got a daily routine going that works for you and the person you’re a carer for, this isn’t the time to drop it. Instead of foregoing it to adhere to holiday traditions, work the holiday traditions around it. A cup of tea in bed and then a walk to the local shop can come before prayer service or present opening. (Of course, the local shop may not be open; take a little jaunt around the garden or park instead.) If Pam always calls in the afternoon, ask Pam if she wouldn’t mind calling as usual for 10 minutes, or at least acknowledge the lack of call by explaining that she’s let you know she won’t be able to call today. Having familiar routines in place can help settle the person you care for and reassure them that there’s nothing amiss.
Tip 10: Think About Food and Drink
Having dementia can sometimes complicate food and drink, but they’re a big part of many festivities. There are lots of things you can do to make sure the person you’re caring for doesn’t feel left out. If they have low appetite, offer them small portions. If they prefer to graze rather than eat one big meal, give them something small at the same time that everyone else eats so that they’re still included around the table. When you’re hosting and the person living with dementia needs help being fed, ask someone else to take responsibility for this so you can focus on dishing up for others. Some people with dementia can find different foods a challenge; in cases like this, why not make them up a dish of their usual fare and serve them at the same time as everyone else?
Maybe your celebrations involve alcoholic drinks, but alcohol can interfere with your person’s medications; make sure there’s an alternative available that they can enjoy, whether that’s a 0%-alcohol version, a soft drink, or sparkling water.
Some Things to Plan Ahead For
- Pharmacies probably won’t be open on big national holidays like Christmas and Boxing Day. Make sure you’re stocked up with all the necessary medications, and have the details of your emergency GP or closest A&E on hand in case you need them.
- If the person living with dementia is visiting you from their usual home at a care facility, speak with care staff about what you’re planning for the time they stay with you. Be prepared to take them back to their care home if they become too overwhelmed or upset, and ask the staff to be prepared for this too.
- If you’re visiting someone in their care home instead of having them visit you, make sure to take note of care home visiting hours beforehand so that you don’t miss them. If care home hours are quite stringent on the day and your person won’t miss you, don’t feel guilty about visiting them the day before or after instead; it’s more important to spend quality time with them that makes the both of you feel good than it is to adhere to a specific date.