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Written by David Moore, dementia lead at Methodist Homes (MHA)

Christmas is a time for celebrations and family. Of making memories and being with loved ones.

But what happens when one of those family members is living with dementia. How can you make it a special time for them, especially if they are living with you?

Christmas can be a difficult time for many people and in particular for people living with dementia. Having more visitors than usual, changes in routine and seeing their surroundings change, often quite suddenly, can be overwhelming for some people living with dementia. Because of this it is worth thinking about how we can make sure that they are involved in the preparations for Christmas.

Because we can get excited about Christmas or because we want to show families and visitors that we are creating a great Christmas for their loved ones, it can be easy for us to take over, but we need to reflect on what they want.

For instance, check when they want the decorations put up. Putting them up too early could lead to confusion about the date for some people living with dementia. It is also worth slowing down and staggering the time the decorations are put up, for example you might what to put the tree up on one day, then other decorations a few days later. By making a series of small changes instead of giving your home a Christmas makeover, all at once, you can make it easier for people living with dementia to gradually adjust.

I would also advise keeping decorations relatively simple and traditional as some modern decorations could be overwhelming for people.

Another issue to consider is how we can keep people living with dementia happy and settled at this time of year.

There can be a pressure for everyone to be ‘happy’ and cheerful over Christmas, but this unnatural expectation puts extra pressure on all of us. For some people living with dementia, Christmas can bring back unhappy memories and remind them of what they have lost. The last thing they will want is to be reminded of these losses.

For family members seeing their relative with dementia can be particularly difficult at Christmas. Families may draw comparisons to previous Christmas’s when their relative didn’t have dementia. For some family members it can be too painful to visit during the Christmas and New Year period.

How can we support people living with dementia on Christmas Day? The big day itself can be busy, depending on how you celebrate.  

Family visitors, decorations and the music can all get a bit too much sometimes for any of us, let alone people living with dementia. Try and keep an eye on them to make sure they aren’t becoming distressed – make sure there’s a calm, quiet space they can go if it is all getting too much.

For the Christmas meal, you can make it easier for people living with dementia by reducing the amount of decorations, crockery and condiments on the table. Although having lots of ‘stuff’ on the table can look nice, it can be overwhelming for some which might lead them to not eating. Incidentally, Christmas food makes great snacks. People living with dementia may not want a full meal, so pigs in blankets, sausage rolls, etc. can be ideal finger foods.

It might be worth suggesting to visitors and families that they visit their relative in smaller groups rather than having the extended family all visit together on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. All these extra people visiting could be quite bewildering for some people living with dementia and could leave them feeling uncomfortable and confused.

But it is worth trying to include them in the day as much as possible. Whether this is through Christmas themed activities, preparing food, laying the table, or giving out presents; all of these will act as prompts for the day.

It might also be worth sticking with classic Christmas movies, nostalgic music and traditional carols that they are familiar with.

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