Christmas means many things to many people—from food, family and festivities, to religious observance and quiet reflection. But for people affected by dementia it can be more difficult. Here are 8 ways you can support people with dementia at Christmas.
There is always so much to consider at Christmas, and that’s especially true for carers.
So, with help from our online community Talking Point, we’ve compiled a few tips to help you make the most out of the festive season. Here are some tips to help you support your loved one (and yourself) this Christmas.
8 ways to support somebody with dementia at Christmas
1. Put decorations up gradually
Introduce the Christmas environment slowly. Think about putting decorations up gradually over a few days so it doesn’t come as a big change to the person’s usual setting. Talking Point member Nae Sporran said:
This year I put the tree up on the first of December to brighten the place up and it made ‘C’ so happy.
'She especially likes the old wreath she has had for years even if she doesn't recognise it.'
2. Keep it simple and familiar
Someone with dementia may feel overwhelmed over the Christmas period, so it's best not to overdo it. Keeping the day's activities low-key will help your loved one to relax.
If they usually go to church around this time but are unable to, consider online or televised services.
Sticking to a familiar routine is also a good idea where possible. Having meals at regular times and in familiar surroundings will help to limit any potential confusion. Talking Point member jaymor said:
'We kept it as just a normal day. Decorations, Christmassy food and goodies confused my husband and made him more anxious than he already was.'
It was just too much for both of us. So for us there was no preparation.
'The children bought him clothes and his usual weekly supply of sweets and no Christmas wrapping in sight. He was used to his supply of sweets but the clothing was put away without him seeing it.'
3. Get everyone involved
There are many ways to involve people living with dementia at Christmas time – from something as simple as hanging a bauble on the tree to doing a spot of Christmas shopping. Playing Christmas music and singing favourite carols can be a simple way to involve the person in the festivities.
The important thing is that they feel included. Talking Point member Soobee said:
With Christmas cards, my mum still wanted to send them out, so I got her to write her name on a piece of paper.
'I then scanned, resized and copied them and printed them out onto computer labels.'
'Mum helped me to stick in a few of the labels so she felt involved, and I wrote the recipients name in at the top and did the envelopes. We did about 25 cards for her that year and she would never have been able to write her name more than once.'
4. Create a quiet area
A large number of guests can be overwhelming, so ask family and friends to spread out their visits over the festive period.
If things do get busy, designate one room or space in the home a ‘quiet area’ where your loved one can relax without loud noise. For some people, listening to music on headphones can be a good way to block out the noise and feel calmer.
5. Bring back old memories
Whether it’s an old song they used to enjoy or a classic Christmas film, find something you can take part in that is important to the person. Making a family photo album or memory box could be a nice way to spend time together.
Be mindful that there may be things the person does not wish to reminisce about, such as upsetting events and people that they miss. Talking Point member Agzy said:
I have created a memory iPad which has nothing but hundreds of photographs of friends, family and places.
'Using my computer I have added names, year dates and place names. It has been a long labour of love but has paid off dividends as I update it regularly with new photos of interest to her.'
6. Be mindful of food
Although many people eat a lot at Christmas, a full plate can be daunting for someone who has difficulties eating. If you're doing the serving, try not to overload your loved one’s plate. We've also got lots more general tips to help with eating and drinking on our website.
Talking Point member BarbGee said:
'My husband was diagnosed with Lewy Body about 12 years ago and increasingly finds changes to our normal routine distressing. For the last few years we've just stayed at home by ourselves and kept Christmas really quiet.'
'Last year Christmas Day was one of his "bad" days and he actually stayed in bed, asleep, until tea time. He wanted scrambled eggs so that was our Christmas meal.'
I think my tip would be to keep it simple and try not to be disappointed if it's all a bit dull. That's life!
7. Be flexible
It’s easy to get caught up in Christmas traditions and how things have always been done in the family, but your festive season might begin to look different as dementia progresses. It's always worth having a plan B, and be prepared to change your plans if a particular element isn't working.
Talking Point member wildasba said:
'My mum loved Christmas with us but on Boxing Day, when we had other family and friends over (it was the same group of people every year, who she knew), she would get very stressed, sitting away from everyone else (sometimes out on the stairs).
'A couple of times she was abusive to other people and she was always clingy with me - the whole thing was overwhelming for her and she couldn't cope. This was despite asking who was coming, wanting to help with the preparations and being quite excited about it all.'
Even if they seem ok with the whole idea, don't take it personally if they behave the opposite. In fact, our mantra for coping with Mum, these last few years, is exactly that - Don't Take It Personally!
8. Plan ahead
Consider minimising situations where the person with dementia is put on the spot to remember names. Think about giving a gentle reminder each time a new person arrives, or ask that people introduce themselves. Speaking with family members in advance, especially younger children, may help avoid embarrassing moments for someone with dementia too.
If the person with dementia is living in a care home, it can be helpful to ask the home in advance what their plans are for Christmas Day - particularly if they have restrictions on visiting times or amount of people allowed at any ome time. Talking Point member Sarasa said:
'Mum's current home has a strict visiting policy so I doubt I could see her on the day even if I wanted to. I'll drop some presents off earlier in the week. My mother in law's home is more relaxed, but I doubt they'd want all four of her children, partners and various adult grandchildren turning up.
'I guess they family will decide among themselves who visits when. My mother in law too has no concept of times or seasons so won't miss a big celebration.'
This article was first published in 2018 and was most recently updated in October 2023.
Join our online community
Our online community Talking Point is free and available over the entire Christmas period. Join or visit anytime to get more advice, share experiences and connect with others in similar situations.