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Preparing for the festive season

Deborah Hutchinson is a specialist dementia nurse working on the Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline. She answers some of the most frequently asked questions on the Helpline in the lead-up to Christmas.

The festive season usually involves family get-togethers, which can be stressful if you are supporting someone living with dementia. It might be exciting to catch up with family and friends, but you may also feel worried about how to prepare them for seeing your loved one with dementia if they haven’t seen them for a while.

How do I prepare my family for seeing their loved one with dementia for the first time in a while?

It might be that some family and friends who are joining you haven’t seen the person with dementia for quite a while – maybe since last Christmas – and aren’t fully aware of their situation. If you are the carer, you might be feeling nervous about how friends and family will react to the person with dementia on the day.

Don’t be afraid to tell your family that they may notice a significant difference in the person with dementia if they haven’t seen them recently. Let them know the main changes they may see, like memory loss, communication challenges, changes in personality and behaviour and physical differences like weight loss or appearing less well groomed.

Share some of our tips for communication so that family and friends feel prepared and ready to enjoy your time together.

How do I prepare the children for seeing their grandparent with dementia?

Children can be loud and playful when they are excited, so let them know that the person with dementia may not be able to play like they used to or might prefer a calmer activity instead, like listening to music or reading stories.

Suggest that if their relative seems quiet and tired on the day, they can ask if they’d like a cuddle, or to hold their hand. Reassure them that if their loved one seems angry or upset, it is not their fault – they are just finding it difficult to adjust to everything going on around them.

Reading these books before the visit may help prepare children for what to expect. You could also use this video to explain more about dementia.

How can I make Christmas Day run smoothly for the person with dementia?

Changes to routine can make a person living with dementia feel uneasy, so keep activities simple and try to stick to their normal routine. Do day-to-day tasks like getting up, washing and dressing, having breakfast and taking medication at the same time as usual.

Open presents as the main morning activity and take a break if the person becomes overwhelmed. Aim to prepare and eat lunch at the normal time and include some of the foods that your loved one usually enjoys.

Try a short activity in the afternoon like going for a walk and getting some fresh air, or let them rest if they need to.

Take your lead from the person living with dementia. Loud music, busy social interactions and changes to their routine can cause confusion and distress so try to avoid them if you can – for example, look for alternatives like no-snap crackers. You may need to stop the festivities for a while or provide them with a quiet place to take some time out, like a bedroom.

Don’t worry if things aren’t perfect. With some small changes and adjustments, you can still have a fun festive get-together and help everyone enjoy the day.