Ricky’s talks about how his Gran’s dementia diagnosis impacts his whole family and why he is supporting the ‘We live with dementia’ campaign.
Christmas can be stressful and emotionally challenging, especially for people affected by dementia. Our dementia specialist Admiral Nurses have put together a list of Christmas tips to help you and the person you care for cope as well as possible during this festive season.
When you are caring for someone with dementia, it is important to bear in mind that vital services like pharmacies, shops, GPs, dentists, and mental health services have reduced opening hours over the Christmas period. To make sure you’re not caught out, try to get things sorted in good time before you start celebrating with friends or family.
This can include:
- getting the food shopping and gifts well in advance or ordering them online, see our inclusive gifts for people with dementia
- ordering and collecting prescriptions you or the person you care for will need
- organising paid care cover if necessary
- making a list of out of hours services such as the GP, emergency dentist, pharmacies, mental health services and social services
- packing in advance if you will be visiting friends and family so that you have plenty of time to check that you have everything you need
Make sure that any guests, friends or relatives you are celebrating with, know beforehand that your loved one has dementia. If it’s easier, you could just tell them that the person with dementia has memory problems and ask them to keep conversations clear and simple.
If your friends, family, or other guests know that the person has dementia, but haven’t seen them in a while, let them know of any changes to expect.
It’s good to involve the person with dementia when planning activities. If you can, make sure they know what’s going to happen, and check that they’re happy with it, but equally, try not to overload them with too many choices or expectations, as some people may find this overwhelming.
Think about food and drink
Consider the foods that the person with dementia prefers, what are their likes and dislikes?
If they have a smaller appetite, keep their portions small, and talk them through what’s on their plate if that would help them. Check in with them during the meal to see if they are managing, and discreetly offer help, if needed.
Finger food might be preferable to a traditional Christmas dinner. People may struggle with cutlery, leading to frustration. A festive apron at the table is a subtle way to help the person with dementia maintain dignity and feel respected and included.
If the person enjoys an alcoholic drink, they should be free to enjoy one, but bear in mind that alcohol can interfere with certain types of medication or can be disorientating for a person with dementia.
Have a conversation with your pharmacist or other health professional about medication if you’re unsure whether it is safe for the person with dementia to have an alcoholic drink. Alternatively, you could offer them alcohol-free varieties of beer and wine.
Coping with Christmas on your own
Christmas can be difficult if you’re spending it alone, for example if the person you used to care for has moved into residential care, or if you’ve been bereaved. Give yourself time to process your feelings, be kind to yourself, and spend your Christmas in whatever way you need to.
Learning to live with loss and bereavement can take a long time, and even if you thought you were doing okay, you might experience a ‘dip’ around a family-oriented time like Christmas.
This may mean you don’t want to celebrate the holiday, or that you feel you need to be around friends or family. You might even want to do something completely different, like voluntary work for people in need.
If you need someone to talk to, please call our free Helpline, which is open everyday except 25th December.
The noise and hubbub of a busy family Christmas can be overwhelming for a person with dementia, so try to avoid overstimulating them with sights and sounds.
If you can, reduce unnecessary noise like Christmas crackers and loud music, and limit competing noises – for example, turn off the TV if people are talking.
Children can be a great distraction and source of enjoyment, but you may need to monitor the amount of time the person with dementia spends with young visitors and look out for signs that they’re becoming tired or that noise levels are getting difficult for them to tolerate.
Keep activities short, with a pause every 30-40 minutes, and if you can, set aside a quiet room where they can have some downtime. You can make an unfamiliar room welcoming by bringing one of the person’s sofa cushions from their home, spraying a familiar scent or playing music they love.
Keep to routines
People with dementia often benefit from knowing what’s going to happen next, so it can be helpful to try to uphold some of their normal routines, even if they’re not at home for Christmas.
Do they have meals at a set time? Or a cup of tea in bed every morning? Do they watch a favourite programme at the same time every day? Try to support these routines where you can.
Think of engaging activities
Try to think of inclusive activities for the person with dementia, or things to do that might engage or evoke memories. For example, you could build a scrapbook together using photos from previous family Christmases or revive family traditions like playing charades or singing familiar songs together.
If the person has always celebrated Christmas as a Christian festival, you could try to engage them in hymns, the nativity story or church – which might spark memories or make the person feel peaceful and connected to their faith.
Find out about support groups in your area
If Christmas is a difficult time for you find out about support groups in your area. Local centres might be holding gatherings or lunches over the Christmas period – it might be comforting to spend time with other people in a similar situation to you, even if going out feels like a lot of effort.
Organisations like your local Age UK may have details of events happening over the festive period, and you may also be able to find information in local social media groups, through social services, in community centres and libraries and through your GP surgery.
If you can’t get out, there may be local retailers and voluntary groups that can deliver shopping and other supplies for you. It’s a good idea to look into this in plenty of time in the weeks running up to Christmas.
Don’t overdo it
Keep in mind what is manageable for the person with dementia. Allow them to have a nap at lunchtime if they need to, and if they’re going back to their home at the end of the day, don’t leave it too late – try to take them home in daylight so they can see they’re back in their familiar environment, rather than waiting until it gets dark when they may be more disorientated.
Have a practice run
If you’re bringing a person with dementia out of their care home over the festive period, have a few practice runs. This will help you figure out if it’s realistic and achievable to take them out for Christmas.
Include the care home staff in your planning and ask them for their advice and how they might be able to support you and the person you care for.
If you’re anxious that the person with dementia won’t want to leave you at the end of the day, you could say “Let’s go home now,” rather than, “You have to go home.” If you do things together, it can make things less stressful or frightening for them.
Once you arrive back at the home, go in with the person and have an activity ready like having a drink or showing their carer a gift that they received. Ask the staff to be there to welcome you back and distract the person with dementia when it is time for you to leave.
Include the person with dementia
Make sure you include the person with dementia in your Christmas activities. For example, you could ask them to help you wrap presents, put up decorations, set the table or peel potatoes.
If you’re celebrating Christmas with other people, give them pointers beforehand on how to make the person with dementia feel happy and included. Sometimes, when people know someone has a diagnosis of dementia, they behave differently towards them – for example, they might avoid speaking to the person for fear that they’ll get it wrong.
If you think this could be the case, advise your guests to make sure they smile and make eye contact with the person with dementia and, keep conversations with them straightforward. You could suggest they read through our tips for communicating with a person with dementia in advance.
Give yourself a break
Christmas can be a stressful time – perhaps you have expectations of previous family Christmases to live up to; maybe relationships between relatives have changed; or you might be worried about how the difference in routine will affect the person with dementia.
If you’re entertaining or cooking a big meal, try not to put too much pressure on yourself to make everything perfect – enjoy the day for what it is, and accept any help offered by others.
If you’re not visiting or having visitors, try to find time to do whatever brings you some peace – you could put on music or a film you love, sit quietly with a book or take a walk on your own or with the person you care for.
If you’re a carer, why not ask a friend or relative to sit with the person you care for while you take a break for a few hours?
Sources of support
To speak to a dementia specialist Admiral Nurse about managing the festive season or any other aspect of dementia, please contact the free Helpline on 0800 888 6678 (Monday-Friday 9am-9pm; Saturday, Sunday and bank holidays 9am-5pm, every day except 25th December) or email email@example.com
You can also book a phone or video appointment.
Call the Dementia UK Helpline
Our free, confidential Dementia Helpline is staffed by our dementia specialist Admiral Nurses who provide information, advice and support with any aspect of dementia.