It’s stressful at the best of times, but when someone you love has dementia, the festive season can become a relationship minefield. Here’s five scenarios you may face…and how to cope

Whether your loved one is newly diagnosed or has been living with dementia for quite some time, Christmas can be a very stressful time of year for them and for you. But believe it or not, you aren’t alone and many other families will be facing the same kind of dilemmas.
Here’s how to deal with some of the most common issues and have a happy Christmas!

Awkward questions

As their recent memory disappears, events and people from the distant past can become vivid for someone with dementia. If a loved one who has passed away used to play a big part in Christmas celebrations, it’s likely they will start talking about them again as if they’re still alive and you may get a few ‘will your father/my mother/your Aunty Mabel be joining us for lunch?’ questions may crop up.

Tip: You may feel uncomfortable telling outright lies, but know that the truth could be very distressing. So instead try side-stepping awkward questions and move the conversation to something more pleasant. For example, ‘I was just thinking about them myself, remember that Christmas when Dad burnt the turkey?’ etc.

If this doesn’t work and the questions persist, you could try something a little more direct. For example; ‘No I’m afraid they can’t get here for lunch this year but X and X are coming and we can still have a good time.’

Do they know it’s Christmas?

You may not bat an eyelid when the person you care for keeps forgetting which day it is, (even on Christmas Day) but other people – especially friends and family who haven’t seen them for a while – may get a shock. Try to be patient with them and explain this sort of forgetfulness is just part of the illness and they shouldn’t take it to heart.

Tip: Getting irritated or defensive with people who don’t understand won’t help. Save the, ‘If you visited a bit more you might not be quite so shocked,’ conversation for another time.

‘Get out of my house! I’m sick of you all!’

Dealing with angry outbursts at Christmas can be really upsetting. Try not to take it personally. Although it may seem to come from nowhere, aggressive behaviour has many causes including physical discomfort (could they be hungry, thirsty or too hot) feeling lonely, or a change in routine. Having a houseful of noisy people might be too much for your loved one to cope with.

Tip: Try to spread visitors out throughout the day (or even over a few days) and keep to their familiar routine as much as possible.

‘How much have you had to drink?’

With so much going on, it can be difficult to give the person you’re caring for as much attention as usual. Before you know it, they’ve knocked back several glasses of sherry and the meal they’ve been nibbling for ages has been cleared away. Too much alcohol and not enough food is a bad combination at the best of times, but for someone with dementia it can lead to serious problems including aggressive behaviour, falls and accidents – not to mention ugly rows.

Tip: Enlist support. Be realistic, you can’t do everything yourself so appoint another person to keep an eye on the basics; make sure they keep checking that the person with dementia is eating enough food and isn’t being rushed to finish. Ensuring they drink enough fluid is really important too – dehydration can lead to urinary tract infections – as is being prompted to use the loo since accidents can be hugely embarrassing.

‘Why should she stay with me? You were always her favourite!’

Emotions run high during the festive season when old family conflicts have a tendency to resurface. Unfortunately, a dementia diagnosis doesn’t make difficult relationships disappear – it can even make them worse – so gritting your teeth and giving in gracefully to demands from relatives who have more complex relationships with your loved one may be the only way to achieve peace.

Tip: Manage expectations by remembering what’s really important. A person with dementia may require more care, love and attention to keep them calm and content, but if you can give them a good enough Christmas, you will surely create a memory that you can treasure forever – even if they can’t.