DEC. 22, 2018


Expert Urges Family to Remember Loved Ones With Dementia this Christmas


People mostly associate the festive season with joy and good cheer, however it can be particularly stressful for those with dementia or memory loss.

Christmas can be a busy and hurried time, with the pressure for everything to be perfect sometimes creating tension and pressure for the whole family.

Stressful and unpredictable situations are already unwelcome for a person with dementia or memory loss.

Christmas, with all its expectations and ideologies, adds a level of complexity to these situations that often put a strain on the capacity of a person with dementia to manage their already challenging symptoms.

Here are some timely advice for family members trying to create great memories of Christmas for everyone, especially the family member with dementia.

Provide food that is easy to eat

We know how important food is at Christmas to creating those amazing memories. Imagine how overwhelming that table full of food is for a person with dementia. Instead of all the work associated with creating a huge feast, it can be helpful for the person with dementia if they are able to access a lot of snack and finger foods.

Place a range of snacks around the living and dining areas (or wherever your guests are going to congregate) for everyone to enjoy. This allows the person with dementia to walk around, digest food and engage with others in the process, even if they are distracted from eating at times.

Providing finger foods also means that if the person has difficulty with cutlery they can still eat their food with dignity. Finger foods are also great for kids meaning that the person with dementia isnít made to feel out of place when they are eating.

Make the portions small and the food on the soft side

In line with the suggestion to provide finger foods, also remember that some people with dementia may have difficulty with swallowing or chewing their food. Providing them with smaller portions that do not require as much effort to chew and swallow will mean they are more likely to eat. Keeping the texture of the food on the soft side also assists with chewing and swallowing. Smaller portions of food are also less overwhelming for the person with dementia to manage, especially when confronted with a pile of food on a plate.

Finally, if you donít see the family member very often, check with their main care taker about whether there are any foods to avoid or if there are foods the person should have.

Use social cues to Ďannounceí meal time has started

Because orientation to time can become an issue for people with dementia, they may not realize that it is time to eat or that the meal service has commenced. Starting the meal time by saying grace or proposing a toast will bring focus to the start of the meal and might be a helpful cue for the person with dementia that it is time to eat.

Help the person get started with their meal and pay attention to the light

Depending on the progression of the personís cognitive decline, they may not recognize everyday items that are commonly on a table such as cutlery. Putting the knife and fork in their hands may prompt them to remember what to do with the utensils. Encourage everyone else at the table to commence eating, as this will sometimes also trigger a memory of the purpose of the utensils.

As we age, our eyesight deteriorates. For people with dementia, not only has their eyesight degenerated, so too has their ability to make out shapes and light and dark. Not that it is an issue here in Australia, but making sure there is adequate lighting at the table will assist the person with dementia in identifying where their plate is on the table and what food is on the plate. Using a plate that is a contrast in color (especially red) can also assist as it supports the person to distinguish between the tablecloth and the plate. It might also be a good idea to position the person with dementia at a seat around the table where it is easy for them to leave the table to go to the toilet.

Conversations Ė make them happen by keeping them simple

Letís face it, who wants to have a conversation about world peace at Christmas anyway. For a person with dementia overly complex subjects coupled with the confusion associated with being in a room full of people can be distressing. People may find conversation with people with dementia challenging because of their short-term memory issues

The goal here is not to highlight that the person with dementia is having difficulty remembering things. Using short sentences, avoiding complicated words, and not repeating things multiple times (no matter how much you might want to) will give the person with dementia the time to process the initial topic of conversation.

Christmas is actually a great time to have conversations with a person with dementia because it is naturally a time of year that can trigger memories for that person that have otherwise been suppressed by time and circumstance. Drawing on long-term memories is a way the person with dementia can meaningfully participate in a conversation and is also a way for family members to learn more about their lives.

The only downside to remembering things from the past is that Christmas can also trigger sad memories, especially if the person with dementia has lost their spouse. It is difficult to avoid these memories but a way of turning them into happier memories is to have old photos or videos available that can help broaden the conversation.

If holding a conversation is challenging, then use the many great things about Christmas related to music and singing. Most people with dementia enjoy singing their favorite Christmas carols and there is a lot of evidence the music can relax people who are a bit stressed and overwhelmed.

Finally though, donít overthink Christmas. As a famous person once said, Ďdonít sweat the small stuffí. Remain open to the possibility that nothing will go to plan and in the end, that is OK. Provided everyone has fun and there is laughter and love, the outcomes will look after themselves.


TRACEY SILVESTER is Executive Manager of Envigor and has more than 25 years experience in health and aged care services. She is a registered nurse.


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