Christmas with dementia

Christmas is a challenging time for family carers of people with dementia, but there are things that they, social workers and care services can do to ease the trauma of the festive period, says specialist nurse Madeline Armstrong.

(Picture credit: Rex Features)

Christmas can be a very traumatic time for family carers of people with dementia. Finding time to do the preparations, feelings of loneliness and having to cope with memories of happier times when their loved-one was well and capable are some of the challenges carers face during this period.

Sometimes carers feel embarrassed to take the person they care for to relatives for Christmas, as they know it would not work and they may feel that the relatives would not want to come to them.

To make matters worse, carers have the knowledge that most of the social and health care services will shut down over Christmas, which makes them feel very insecure. People with dementia often sense that something is going on, which may make them feel vulnerable.

There are things that carers can do to make Christmas easier for both themselves and the people they care for:

• It is important that people with dementia have the same routine, such as getting up at the same time and going to bed at the same time. When there are a lot of people in the house it is often very daunting for the person with dementia. It is important that they have some time in a quiet room perhaps with just one person, and that they always have one person available to explain gently what is going on. The dinner does not have to be of the standard of past years and convenience foods can be used; the main thing is to avoid a catastrophic reaction.

• Alcohol is best avoided for the person with dementia. It is likely to make them more confused, and their behaviour more difficult to cope with. Alcohol-free wines can be given so that the person feels included. A little alcohol watered down would be all right, but not for people with Lewy Body Dementia, as any alcohol could cause a great deal of confusion or falls.

• People with dementia could be invited to join in some of the preparations for Christmas if that is possible. They may not be able to make a Christmas cake, but they could stir the mixture. They might be able to help make decorations or to help decorate the Christmas tree.

There are also things that social workers can do to ensure that family carers are supported during the festive period. You should make sure that they have a list of emergency numbers, which they can call if needed. Do provide, if possible, some day respite care in the weeks preceding Christmas so that a carer can get the shopping, or attend a social function.

Family carers can also find it emotionally difficult to visit relatives with dementia in residential homes, but creating a happy atmosphere in the care home will help allay this problem.

Decorations and Christmas crackers will be enjoyed by people with dementia. It is probably best to remove the snap, as this could frighten them. Singing is normally very appreciated, and staff, residents and visitors could be encouraged to join in. People with dementia almost always sense when people are happy, and so for everyone’s sake it is important that staff are happy to be there.

Managers should consider doing something extra for the staff to make sure that they feel appreciated and to increase morale.

Madeline Armstrong is an Admiral nurse working for the charity Dementia UK

Dementia UK’s Admiral Nurse helpline is available on 0845 257 9406 between 10am and 5pm over the Christmas period.

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