While it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, many people can find that Christmas is actually quite stressful. And, when you are looking after somebody with dementia, there are additional challenges on top of defrosting the turkey in time and wrapping dozens of presents when the kids are in bed.
For a person with dementia, Christmas poses challenges that include disruption to a routine, confusing changes to décor and the layout of a home, and the pressure to be social over extended periods of time. When somebody’s memory or cognitive skills are deteriorating, they will find these tasks especially difficult; it is important that they are catered for in the most sensitive ways possible.
By looking at each potential challenge in turn, we will suggest some ways to manage these difficulties and have a successful Christmas without causing your loved one with dementia distress or exacerbating their confusion.
1 - Keeping familiar routines at Christmas
When Christmas is approaching, the prospect of several days where the usual routine does not apply can be a big worry for your loved one. For a person with dementia, keeping a similar routine every day can be reassuring and help them to understand what is happening. Our top tips for managing this include:
Get them used to the new situation
If your loved one has not been to your home for a while, and they will be coming there for Christmas, bring them on a visit or two before Christmas arrives. This will help you to understand what they can and can’t manage, and they will start familiarising with the space.
Consider their needs
Reduce noise (such as the TV, party poppers, music and shouting), and keep days manageable. Don’t expect them to be with you from 8am to 10pm when they normally have a nap in the afternoon and only spend an hour or two with visitors. Take them home in daylight if possible, so they can see what is happening and where they are. Also remind them of what they are doing and why things are different to normal.
Involve them in fun but familiar tasks
Involve your loved one with dementia in familiar and reassuring activities to gradually integrate Christmas celebrations in their daily routine. A great way to get somebody involved is to ask them to help with tasks such as making mince pies and Christmas cakes. If they are able to simply stir or if they can recall elements of their tried-and-tested recipes, they will feel part of things. These familiar tasks can be comforting and enjoyable.
Tasks like wrapping presents can be more difficult, as manual dexterity declines, but making paper chains or choosing where the tinsel should go are other tasks that a person with dementia can get involved in. This way, you will help them to feel part of activities while also familiarising themselves with your home.
The normal sleep disturbance that happens for people with dementia can become even more pronounced when there is a lot of stimulation. Stick to bedtime routines: don’t keep somebody up late, and also make sure that factors like whether somebody has a Horlicks before bed or listens to the radio while they fall asleep are taken into account. This is especially important if they are sleeping somewhere other than their usual bedroom.
2 - Christmas decorations: how to avoid creating confusion in people with dementia
A person with dementia can feel at home in familiar surroundings even if they struggle to remember things. However, it can be disconcerting to your loved one if they suddenly notice a Christmas tree in the corner and extra chairs in the dining room to accommodate guests.
Read our top tips to make sure your loved one doesn’t get confused by the changes you make to your or their home:
Put decorations up bit by bit
Don’t decorate the entire house, inside and out, overnight. If you put decorations up gradually, over days or weeks, it will not be as big a change to your loved one, so should reduce bewilderment and panic.
Involve the person with decorations
Even familiar surroundings can look unfamiliar when kitchen tables have been moved to make space and there is tinsel everywhere. Asking a person with dementia to help you to decorate the home could help with familiarity when they come back for Christmas Day or a family party.
Alternatively, bring them over earlier than everybody else and ask them to help you with tasks such as setting the table, which will help them to feel settled and involved.
There might also be decorations that are nostalgic and have particular meaning to a family. Talking about those decorations as they go up can provoke good memories and help to put everybody in a good mood.
Music is an important feature of Christmas, as songs old and new surround us on the radio, in shops and at home. Many people, even those who struggle to communicate because of dementia, are able to hum or even sing along to familiar songs, and Christmas carols and older traditional hits can be very familiar.
Don’t have music on too loud, and make sure there is a quiet room somewhere for a break, but putting on some old-fashioned Christmas music can help a person with dementia to feel settled and in the mood for festivities.
3 - How to organise a family get-together at Christmas
At a family party, a person with dementia can struggle to follow conversations and feeling part of the proceedings. They may also find it difficult to recognise people and get distressed when they are surrounded by people who feel like strangers. Our top tips for managing this:
Ask the person what they want
Involve your loved one who has dementia in the preparations for your party. They may not understand or remember, but it is important that they have their say, even if it is not consistent or reliable. You never know which bits of your preparations will stick in their mind, and it could help them to cope at an event they might otherwise find very difficult.
Plan it out
Don’t just hope for the best when you are planning your Christmas get-together with a person with dementia. Plan it all out in as much detail as you can. Have dates and times in mind so that the rest of the family or your loved one’s carer (if they have one) can remind them where they will be going and what they are going to be doing.
Help them to relax
Stress is a challenge to everybody but, for a person with dementia, it can be unbearable and can even trigger aggressive and out-of-character behaviour. Nobody wants this to happen, so keep everybody as stress-free as possible, avoiding arguments, conflict or too much noise.
Encourage your loved one to take a nap or spend time in a quiet room for a while if tensions rise or if they become distressed, and make sure somebody keeps an eye on them for warning signs of them struggling to cope.
Prepare a quiet room
Lots of people in one home can be overwhelming, so having a space that is dedicated to being quiet and serene can be a wonderful way to reduce stress for your loved one with dementia.
Spread out visits
Consider having visitors in twos or threes throughout the day rather than having everybody at once. Introduce guests, even if they are people your loved one knows, so that they do not feel obliged to remember names, and make sure nobody stays for too long.
Be honest and prepare people
Make sure that everybody who is coming has an understanding of your loved one’s situation. If they are not fully aware of how things have progressed since they last saw them, they may struggle to understand or cope with what they are faced with.
Involve the person with dementia
Make sure your loved one does not feel excluded. Ask them to help with tasks they are familiar with, and let them play with young children, who often do not have an understanding of their illness and instead play and enjoy their company in the moment.
Plan rest times
Don’t expect your loved one to function from morning until night without a rest time. Use the quiet room we mentioned above to let them have a lie down in peace every once in a while, which will help to re-energise and re-equip them for the rest of the day.
Don’t stick to a tradition for the sake of it. Instead, accept that your Christmas routines may look a bit different this year as dementia progresses. Have a plan B in place and don’t set your plans in stone if something does not go as planned.
4 - What if your paid carer is off during Christmas?
This is a time of year when many staff take holiday time off so that they can see their own family and friends. This leaves family carers with sole responsibility for caring for their loved one with dementia. Check out our tips to make sure you manage to care for your loved one while also looking after your own health.
Don’t be hard on yourself
Give yourself a break, as well as the person you are looking after. If you are so exhausted that you can’t function, you will struggle to cope and care for your loved one, and you will have no enjoyment of the festive period yourself. Even if you can only take a few minutes’ break, do it when you can.
Ask for support from your carer
Before your carer goes off on holiday, ask their advice on what best helps your loved one when they struggle. They look after them day in, day out, and therefore have expertise in what will calm your loved one down, what will help them to feel secure, and what kinds of food they will eat.
Keep it simple
Don’t overdo it. Don’t plan fussy activities: routines are good, familiarity is reassuring, and regular mealtimes and familiar surroundings will help to reduce confusion.
5 - How to cope with caring for a loved one at Christmas
As well as making Christmas as manageable as possible for your loved one with dementia, it is also vitally important that you take your own wellbeing into account and cope with the stresses of the season.
Trust your instincts
If you make plans but are worried they are not appropriate, feel free to change your mind. If you are concerned that your loved one will be unsettled or unprepared, cancel or shorten your plans so that they become more manageable.
It may not be a perfect day and everything might not go as planned, but enjoy the moments of clarity or those when your loved one with dementia – and everyone else – have a moment of joy. While there will be challenges, there will also be aspects of your day that are beautiful and meaningful.
Admit it’s difficult
There is no shame in finding this difficult and it can be a relief to say so. Ask for help when you need it, and be explicit about how people can help you.
Something will go wrong, it’s inevitable. Don’t panic, and don’t berate yourself. Instead, keep it in perspective, check everything is ok now, and keep moving forwards.
Connect with others
Christmas can be a difficult and even lonely time for carers, who may feel that they are the only people not having a straight-forward, wonderful time. Remember that you are not the only person struggling: look online and in your local area for support groups and supportive get-togethers, especially for those caring for people with dementia.
Make a list of the phone numbers you need (GP, out-of-hours clinic, helplines) and make sure repeat prescriptions are up to date well before the festivities start.
Ensure you eat, sleep and take rest periods. Take time every day to do something you enjoy, and something you find relaxing. Make sure you have someone at hand who can help you to look after your loved one, so that you can take a short break from time to time.
6 - How respite care can help
Having professional carers on hand, who are specialised in dementia care, can help family carers to ensure that their loved one is well looked after over the festive period.
Everybody needs a rest, and taking some time where somebody else is in charge does not reflect on how dedicated you are to your loved one. In fact, getting respite care from specialised at-home carers can help you to cope in the long run as well as just over Christmas.
If you are simply looking for short-term care for the holidays, respite care can be a highly effective and thoughtful way of helping your loved one with dementia to get the support they need while you take some much-needed rest. They will be supported, with all their needs met, and this takes place at home rather than moving them into a care home, which can be more disruptive and confusing for them.
You can take advantage of this for a period of time from days to weeks, and it can take place as a planned break or in case of emergencies. It can also be used as a way to test how your loved one reacts to having at-home carers, if you are wondering about involving longer-term care.
If you wish to have a chat about how to arrange home care or respite care over the festive period, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of SuperCarers care advisors for a free care consultation on 020 8629 1030.
You can also fill out our online form with details of the type of care you need, and we’ll hand-pick the perfect carer for you.
You may also be interested in our comprehensive guide about living well with dementia.