By Kirsty Porter
CEO, Umbrella Dementia Cafés
For many of us, a dementia-friendly Christmas can be tricky and requires family members to understand how to include and connect with loved ones living with dementia. After hosting over 300 dementia cafés we’ve learnt some effective strategies when supporting your loved one with dementia in a socially setting. So, here are 8 quick simple strategies to help you and your family this Christmas season.
1. The size of the group
People living with dementia have heightened sensors, particularly with noise levels. Noises coming from all directions in a room can cause a great deal of anxiety.
- Keep the family group small.
- Move to an outside environment.
- Minimal background noises or across-the-room conversations.
- Areas created for 1:1 conversation & activities (looking at old photos).
- Reduce room echo with soft furnishings.
2. It’s all about timing.
Routine and timing is important, especially if you can’t avoid a larger family lunch or dinner. It’s important to arrange arrival and eating times best suited for the person living with dementia and ensure the time you sit down to eat is consistent with any other day. Maintaining a daily routine can minimise anxiety and agitation, especially if feelings of hunger are difficult to communicate or recognise. Finally, celebrate the after-meal snooze in a quiet adjoining room.
3. Inclusion means focusing on current abilities
To maintain meaningful social and loving relationships, incorporate engaging activities that match the current ability levels for you’re the person experiencing dementia. Empower them by using inclusion in important jobs.
- Help with the food preparation.
- Don’t underestimate the opportunity to set the table together, the sense of pride and sense of inclusion can’t be underestimated.
- Wear name tags – keeping them fun and be light-hearted about the name tags.
- Help choose the music and consider using a familiar music device such as a record player.
- Wash the dishes together.
Excluding someone because of their limitations will only cause stress, confusion and an innate sense of loss. Alternatively, being a part of the cooking process, such as peeling or washing vegetables, is a valuable and supportive family inclusion activity. It maximises feelings of independence, which is important for inclusion and a sense of belonging.
Finally, be flexible and patient. As people progress through dementia symptoms uniquely, communicate with the family about mum or dad’s individual responses to different activities, be patient and adapt quickly.
4. Moods are contagious
People living with dementia have a wonderfully unique and uncanny tendency to ‘feel the room’ – this is called emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is when emotions are transferred between people in confined spaces, and it is quite amazing to see people living with dementia accept or reject a space based on this concept.
Look at the room objectively and consider;
- Reducing clutter.
- Increasing reminiscent or tactile objects.
- Recognisable or reduced background music or smells.
- Calm conversations.
- Contrasting colours.
If the room is inviting, loving and familiar then you’ll probably be happy to move around it too.
5. The ‘Here & Now’ space
The ‘Here & Now’ space is an essential quiet environment for anyone who needs a break from the chaos of family and to be just in the moment. Set aside a single-focused-environment where one or two family members can sit together in a quiet calm area of the house enjoying ONE, just one activity.
For someone living with dementia including a Here & Now space is crucial. Be 100% clear about what one thing the space is intended for: music, reading, looking at reminiscing objects or enjoying a cuppa.
If you want more on creative positive environments for people with dementia, check out the Social Care Institute for Excellence. They have brilliant videos to show you how to improve home environments.
6. The Table
The key here is CONTRAST! For people living with dementia, the perception of depth can be affected, so having contrasting objects is important to identify what is on the table. If food is not easily defined, it is likely to not be eaten for fear of not knowing what it is.
- Use a bright block coloured tablecloth if you have white serving dishes.
- Platter is a contrasting colour with the food on it, for example mash potato wouldn’t go in a white bowl. If the food is unrecognisable, it’s unlikely to be a preferred choice.
- Keep sauces separate. Don’t change the look of the food with sauces draped on top.
- Where possible, allow for autonomy when selecting food. It’s a real pleasure to serve yourself and doubles as a fantastic socialising experience.
It’s very important you consider the contrasts on the table and ensuring the food on the serving dish is recognisable and contrast with the food. Patience is key here. Lastly, don’t underestimate the opportunity to set the table together, stories will come.
7. Appropriate Conversation
In our experience, people living with dementia want to be part of the conversation and feel included.
- Use the ‘Zoom’ call analogy where everyone takes turns in talking and listening.
- use encouraging language for someone living with dementia to speak, be patient and validate the conversation.
- One-on-one conversation – stick to older memories, stories or hobbies.
- Go for a walk to the buffet table together.
- Use a familiar object to inspire a conversation.
- Gently remind other family members of dementia-friendly communication strategies.
- Begin conversations with leading questions.
It’s important to be aware that a major faux par when chatting with someone living with dementia is, “Do you remember..?”. It’s very upsetting if you truly couldn’t remember. Instead, ask, ‘do you recall..?’
Lastly, my big tip when chatting with someone with dementia is, never ever start with “Do you remember..?”. Can you imagine how upsetting this would be if you truly couldn’t remember? If someone asked me that question about my own life events, I know I’d be a bit cranky. Instead, use the word ‘recall’ or influence a story by showing photos, playing with familiar objects, enjoying a 1:1 activity or begin conversations with leading questions.
8. Exchanging gifts
Can exchanging gifts really be a calm experience? Provided you are aware and mitigate negative non-verbal reactions, it can be a hugely enjoyable experience. The noise levels are super important with this part of the day and be patient with each other as you open presents. No matter how old you are or what cognitive changes you live with, opening presents is a very nostalgic experience and should be enjoyed with a healthy dose of laughter (especially that of children), a little bit of mess and lots of love. Of course, 1:1 time exchanging gifts can be an incredible bonding experience too; I personally recommend this top tip for a more intimate experience – it’s worth its weight in gold.
Merry Christmas to you all!
On behalf of everyone at Umbrella Dementia Cafés
we wish you a happy festive season with much love and laughter.
May 2022 be a year of happy connections.
Share in the Christmas spirit this year and add your own top tips below.
Your tip might just be the one idea someone is really looking for.
About the author
Kirsty is a Registered Nurse, Founder and CEO of the Umbrella Dementia Cafés. After successfully hosting her first café sessions in 2016, she saw a massive need to create social groups for families experiencing dementia. Kirsty now leads a team who support four dementia café locations, together facilitating over 310 cafés both face to face and online.