If a loved one has dementia you might be worried about how they’ll cope during the festive season. Read our simple guide to help make Christmas as enjoyable as possible – for everyone.
1. Have a plan
Taking a, ‘let’s see what happens’ approach to the festive season isn’t going to work when you’re caring for someone with dementia. Spontaneous visits can be stressful so make sure to contact anyone who usually drops by (and who your loved one will definitely want to see) and organise dates and times in advance.
2. Trust your instinct
It’s not too late to change a plan you may have agreed to initially but which you’re now worried about. For example, if you’re dreading an overnight stay with Aunty Alice because you know your loved one won’t sleep and could become very unsettled, trust your instinct, confront it now and either cancel the trip or agree to a shorter visit which can be done in a day.
3. Always include them
Whether you’re trying to decide what to buy for the grandchildren or who to visit on Boxing Day, make sure you ask the person with dementia for their opinion, thoughts and ideas. Encourage them to help you too, with things like setting the table or writing Christmas cards which will provide a sense of purpose for them. Focus on what they can still do to help and feel part of the festivities (however small that may be) rather than what they can’t do.
4. Share the care
The biggest mistake many carers make is trying to do too much, so remember you can’t do everything. Friends and relatives are often willing and able to help but they can’t read your mind and you may have to ask them directly for the sort of help you need. If you’re worried that they could struggle to cope with your loved one’s condition, ask for practical help instead. For example, maybe they could wrap your Christmas presents, do the shopping or tidy the house.
5. Eat and drink (and be merry)
Whilst your normal routine may be unworkable at Christmas, especially if you’ve got people staying, your loved one still needs to eat and drink regularly. The last thing you want is for them to develop a urinary tract infection so keep a constant eye on their fluid intake, or if you’re too busy nominate someone else for this role (see Rule 4 above). When it comes to mealtimes, it doesn’t matter if they can’t always use a dining room table – providing they feel comfortable and calm, a tray on their lap is fine.
6. Help them to relax
Stress is often the trigger for challenging, aggressive behaviour which can be really upsetting at Christmas. So it’s in everyone’s interests to keep the person with dementia feeling relaxed. During the day, encourage them to take a nap if they seem tired, or if the house is too noisy, give them some headphones and let them listen to soothing music.
7. Get outside
You don’t have to be holed up indoors at Christmas, and going outside can bring many physical, psychological and social benefits. Try to get out every day even if it’s just for a ten minute walk in a local park – exploring nature can be a great mood booster.
8. Make sleep a priority
People with dementia often have trouble sleeping through the night and this can become even more of a problem at Christmas if there’s lots going on. Try to stick to a familiar bedtime routine wherever possible – whether it’s listening to Radio 4 in bed or drinking a hot chocolate – because it will help them feel safe and secure which is particularly important if they’re sleeping in an unfamiliar environment.
9. Make the most of grandchildren
Grandchildren can bring enormous pleasure to people living with dementia and best of all they’re usually non-judgemental. Find a simple activity they can enjoy together, whether it’s colouring in, doing a jigsaw, playing a game (not a noisy one though) or watching a movie, then sit back and enjoy!
10. Be kind to yourself
No matter how busy you are, it’s really important to make time for yourself over Christmas. If you’re physically and emotionally exhausted, you’re likely to become depressed, resentful or ill, all of which will affect your ability to care properly for a loved one. So put yourself first, even if it’s just for ten minutes each day.
11. Stay positive
If despite all your best efforts something still goes wrong, don’t despair. Focus instead on what’s gone right, keep it in perspective and move on. For example, if Christmas Day went pretty well, apart from one angry outburst or upsetting moment, surely that means it was an overall success. Remind yourself that nobody’s perfect and you’re doing the best you can.
12. Treasure each moment
When your memory is no longer reliable all you have left is the present moment. So instead of worrying or stressing about what might happen, try to see Christmas through the eyes of the person with dementia; appreciate and enjoy every single good moment, take photographs or videos to capture them and to remind yourself later what’s really important.