Families are often looking for practical tips and creative activities that can be used to engage and support loved ones with dementia during the holiday season. This blog provides a few ideas that are aimed at helping to make everyone's holiday season the "Most wonderful time of the year"!
A common expression uttered throughout the holiday season is, 'There is so much to do -- so little time'. Now, compare this to the person with dementia who often spends endless days wishing there was something to do. There are so many things people living with dementia might enjoy doing -- but the trick is that you have to be the one to set them up with the job or the activity AND you need to set things up so they can do it successfully.
Break down tasks and demonstrate what to do according to the abilities of the individual. As you prepare for the holiday season consider putting some of the jobs they did in the past back into their days in the present. This can also help to lift some of your burden. For example, ask them to help with:
• Polishing the silver (you can use toothpaste if you don't have silver polish handy)
• Choose the best recipes for dinners and treats
• Remove the plastic from candy canes (crush in bags and use in or on baked goods)
• Roll out or shape the dough when making cookies
• Ice the cupcakes or cake
• Peel the vegetables
• Put the thread through the Christmas decorations (I used yarn and had my mom put string on all the balls this year. I cut the yarn to the right size to ensure success.)
• Wash and dry the dishes when you are finished baking
• Sweep the floor
• Wipe the counters
The goal is to connect people with meaningful things to do and remind them later about how much you appreciated their help. My mom, who is in the middle stages of dementia, doesn't remember that she helped to make our shortbread, but she smiles widely when I say, "We had such a great time baking these treats, didn't we mom?"
It is also important to enjoy a variety of fun activities that can add to the preparations of the season. Here are a few. (Note: Pinterest has many more ideas!)
1) Create a mug of good cheer: Purchase a white mug and two different coloured oil based sharpies. Using the permanent markers, ask the person with dementia to put tiny dots on the mug. (If you want them to follow a pattern, tape a stencil to the mug). Let the design dry for 20 minutes. Then, have the caregiver place the mug into a cool oven and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Allow the mug to cool before it is removed. This is a perfect gift for them to make and give away. After the gifts are opened, add warm apple cider or hot chocolate and enjoy!
2) Gingerbread house competition: Last year our family had a gingerbread house competition. We divided up into teams and everyone had 45 minutes to create a masterpiece! My mom added icing and the candies (for her team only!) What an abundance of fun!
3) A festive table: Using green pipe cleaners and red and white beads have the person with dementia bead the pipe cleaner in a candy cane pattern and then, after beads are added, curve the top into a candy cane shape. Make one for each plate on the Christmas dinner table. (Note: Beads are a choking hazard for those who put everything in their mouths.)
4) Handmade Christmas crackers: Find some small things to put in the middle of a Christmas cracker. Consider using a joke or inspirational sayings then tuck a 'surprise' inside an empty roll of toilet paper and then wrap the roll with decorative paper and tie the ends with a bow. Put one on each plate at your festive dinner.
Then when company comes . . .
Trigger memories with nametags
The hustle and bustle of the holidays often brings people together. This can be a problem for those who are challenged by memory loss. While the person with dementia may recognize someone's face, they may struggle to remember the person's name. Nametags can help to address this frustration.
When my family has holiday gatherings I make sure everyone wears a name badge with first names in bold black letters, using a fat marker. This helps to set those with memory loss up for success. My mother, who has dementia, once said, "Those signs are a good idea." She was referring to the name badges.
Help! Where is my room?
Many people invite relatives to stay overnight during the holiday season. This could lead to a game of 'musical rooms' when loved ones with dementia stay the night. People with dementia may become disoriented and may forget where the toilet is or forget how to find or return to their room. I highly recommend that you put signs on walls and doors to facilitate independence.
When my mom was in the earlier stages of dementia I noticed, when she came to visit, that she seemed lost when she went to look for the toilet and her bedroom. I realized it was time to post directional cues. While she might say she doesn't need them, the look on her face when she independently finds her way would tell me otherwise.
While it may take a bit of extra time to set the person with dementia up for a successful holiday season, remember that there is no greater gift than that of affording someone a life of dignity and days filled with meaning and purpose.
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