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Making Christmas Enjoyable for a Person With Dementia

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It’s hard to believe that we’re already only a couple of weeks away from Christmas.  This is one of my favorite times of year.  Every place I go, I see tons of decorations and hear those old familiar Christmas carols.  But, it can also be a stressful time for those with dementia, who may have difficulty adjusting to the hustle and bustle, and the changes in their environment.  Here are some suggestions for making this time of year easier for individuals such as these.

Part of the fun of Christmas is decorating the home.  It’s even more enjoyable, in my opinion, when you can do it together as a family.  And it’s important to include the person with dementia in this activity.  However, to minimize the stress on the person with dementia, you should have the major part of the decorating done before they arrive, or while they are temporarily removed from the situation.  Then, allow her to help you with the finishing touches.  Buy unbreakable ornaments, but be especially careful if your loved one has a tendency to put things in her mouth.  Garland, and ornaments made out of fabric are good choices.  If your loved one is at risk for dropping objects, be sure to use unbreakable ornaments in her room.  Perhaps she could put some plastic clings on the windows.

Another activity that you can do with your loved one is make ornaments out of old Christmas cards.  Both of you can enjoy looking through the old cards, and talking about the pictures on the front.  Old memories might surface upon seeing the signatures of old friends and relatives.  Have your loved one cut out the pictures, if appropriate, and punch holes in them to string bits of ribbon through, so they can be hung on the tree.  Something similar can be done with photographs of past Christmases.

If you feel that participating in the decorating process would be too much for your loved one, perhaps you could drive around town looking at the yard ornaments and lights.  Sometimes parks or various organizations will have displays that you can walk or drive through.  However, it would be best to stay away from places where there may be crowds of people.

Singing Christmas carols is always a good activity, and one that can be done in a large or small group.  Many families have favorite songs that they enjoy singing, and the person with dementia will most likely be able to participate in these with little difficulty.  Even if she is not able to remember the words, she will most likely enjoy listening to the other people as they sing.  This activity is especially good for lifting the spirits, and also exercising the lungs.

Spiritual activities, such as going to church and praying, may be meaningful to your loved one.  Many older persons with dementia, who have been active in religious and/or spiritual activities, will retain memories of these things.  I have seen persons who were at a very advanced stage of dementia, with little seeming awareness of what’s going on around them, become quite animated upon hearing a favorite hymn or prayer, and will often attempt to participate.  If attending a traditional church service is inappropriate, because of the length of the service or the number of people involved, try going at the beginning or ending of the service.  There will most likely be fewer people there then.  If possible, arrange to have a small private service in your home.  Invite a few close friends or family members, and have everyone take turns reading parts of an informal service.  Or arrange for the family minister or priest to stop by and conduct the service.

All families will have important family traditions that have been carried down through the years.  Be sure to include your loved one in these, when possible.  Memories of such familiar and well-loved activities are sure to bring a smile to your loved one’s face.  She will undoubtedly try to participate as much as possible.  Try talking about memories of Christmases past, such as a trip to buy a Christmas tree when the car broke down, or the year that the dog ate the turkey.  Don’t ask, “Do you remember?” Instead tell the story, and let your loved one join in with her own recollections, or simply smile as she listens to your words.  Talk about friends and family members who are present, as well as those who have gone before.  It can be especially nice if children are present, who are hearing these stories for the first time.

Having a traditional holiday meal together is always rewarding for all involved.  Involve your loved one in the meal preparations as much as possible.  Often there will be family traditions that involve particular dishes and their preparation, and the person with dementia can participate in a discussion of these.  Asking her for help preparing the meal, even if only to answer a few questions or give suggestions, will make her feel included and respected.  Perhaps she can help set the table or fold napkins.  If she has any special dietary needs, such as finger foods or soft foods, be sure to take these into account.  If necessary, prepare a special plate for her without making a fuss about it.

By all means, include children in your preparations if possible.  Most older folks, including those with dementia, will brighten up around children.  The joy and spontaneity that always surrounds a group of children can be enjoyed by all.  But be sure not to overwhelm your loved one, as a lot of noise and activity may be too much for her.

It is important, however, to maintain your loved one’s routine as much as possible.  There will be a lot of changes taking place in her environment and in the number of people and activities she is exposed to, which may cause additional stress in her life.  If she can continue her routines as far as getting up and going to bed, and self-care tasks, that may help her cope with the additional disruptions.  Try to find some time when she can retire to a quiet area, to rest or to have some time with just one person, and try to be sure that she has someone with her to explain what is going on and to remove her from the situation if she becomes too distraught.

Alcohol should be avoided for the person with dementia.  It is not uncommon for some families to give a special toast with meals, or to share some egg nog, for example.  But try to have a non-alcoholic version available for your loved one.  The alcohol may interact with some of her medications, and her body may not be able to process it as well as she might have at one time.

If you find that there are certain activities which your loved one will not be able to participate in, or will be too upsetting for her, consider making use of respite services.  Long-term care facilities are often able to accommodate people for a short time if, for example, you are expecting a houseful of visitors that may cause too much of a disruption at home.  A home health agency or your church may be able to provide someone to sit with her for a few hours so that you can do your shopping or go to a late-night party.

It is very important, however, that those who serve as caregivers for persons with dementia strive to take care of themselves, too.  Holidays are often a stressful time for all, what with rushing around to finish the shopping, decorate the house, prepare the meal, and go to all of the different parties and other activities that can take place.  Having to adapt your activities to include a loved one with dementia, and provide basic care if needed, can easily prove to be too much for one person.  (And understandably so!)  Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and make use of the community resources that are available for such.  Take care of yourself, and try to find some time to pamper yourself with a nice long bubble bath or a short walk around the block, or whatever helps you get through this time.

 

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