Christmas can be a stressful experience when caring for a person with dementia, but there are things you can do to create a more peaceful environment. SweetTree Admiral Nurse Rikki Lorenti has some top tips…

When you’re caring for a person with dementia, you may be wondering how to keep them feeling safe and loved over the Christmas break. No doubt you’ll also have other family members to think about as well. You might have plans for your festive celebrations but be concerned about whether or not the person can cope with your intentions. Here are some key points to think about to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible…

Make sure the environment isn’t too over-stimulating

There’s lots going on at Christmas and it’s not uncommon to have lots of bright lights and noise, with extra people around, but it’s important to ensure that a person with dementia is not over-stimulated. Too much activity, lights, noise and people can lead to agitation. Make sure they don’t spend long periods of time in a crowded room with different conversations, activities and noise going on around them. Even if they are around other close family relatives, and know them well, it could still be too much for them.

Be realistic about what the person can cope with

If you have a very big family, it’s worth considering what you can do to adapt the situation. If your typical family Christmas involves a large family meal, then remember this that might increase stress levels for the person with dementia. Consider whether they can cope with a large Christmas dinner with a big group of people or whether Christmas should be celebrated on a much smaller scale, perhaps even on a one-to-one basis.

Keep offering reassurance

People with dementia may struggle with conversation and communication in a group setting, so they will need some sort of reassurance. They may not be able to get involved in the conversation. Keep reassuring them and be aware that as they are getting tired, they will get more agitated and stressed. Monitor how they are feeling and give them time out in a quieter environment and be aware that things may become over-stimulating.

Give relatives the heads-up

If it’s been a while since certain family members have seen the person, let them know that the dementia has progressed. If you are going into a restaurant for a family meal, discreetly let the restaurant staff know that the person has dementia and that there are issues in relation to their ability to cope in a busy environment. Too much cutlery on the table may confuse them for example. Being honest and upfront and saying to people: “We have got to make some allowances today because my father has dementia and it’s progressed” makes it easier for them to appreciate the situation. You can say: “He’s much more impaired and consequently he may well struggle with communication, the amount of tableware and he may get confused.” If you are upfront about it, people can make allowances.

Be wary of taking the person out of their own home

You may want the person to come to you or another relative’s house for Christmas, but this change in routine and environment could cause distress, though it depends on the person. Question whether it’s going to be beneficial for them and the rest of the family. Try to determine how you feel the person can cope in social environments before making a decision. If they tend to struggle and this leads to frustration and stress, you have to question whether it actually works. It may be easier for you to have dinner at the person’s house or take them out for lunch, but again be wary of large crowds and noisy environments.

Give them a break if they are getting stressed

If the person with dementia is in a social environment and they seem to be getting stressed, take them away from it before their frustration or confusion escalates. Sit down with them somewhere quiet and hold their hand if they feel comfortable with that. Sometimes you have to sit back and allow the person time to calm down if they have become angry. Some fresh air and a walk if this is possible can help, especially if the environment they were in was causing them stress. Putting on their favourite music and letting them listen to it while you reassure them can help.

Don’t feel disheartened if they don’t remember Christmas

If Christmas Day goes well and the person has a good time, don’t feel disappointed if they don’t remember any of it the next day. The most important thing is that you made them feel safe, secure and good in that moment. And even if they don’t remember what they did the next day, they may well remember that they felt good.