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Coping with dementia at Christmas

Take the stress out of Christmas when caring for a person with dementia and make it a happier time for all concerned.

Contributor: Christina MacDonald

Christmas can be a stressful time if you are caring for a person with dementia. You’ll want to do your best to care for them and make sure they enjoy the festive break, but it’s important not to wear yourself out in the process. So what’s the best way to make sure the person you are caring for continues to feel safe, loved, appreciated and above all, not overwhelmed by the sudden change in routine and activity?


When caring for my mother, who had vascular dementia, I learned by trial and error. During the earlier stages of her disease, we used to enjoy a traditional family Christmas dinner. However, as the disease progressed, she became more emotional and confused. In the mid-stages of her dementia, I decided to bring her over to stay with my family one Christmas. I drove the 60 miles to her house, helped her pack her overnight bag and drove her back home while my husband cooked the Christmas dinner. Everything seemed to be going fairly smoothly until dinner landed on the table. She barely seemed hungry and burst into tears halfway through the meal for no apparent reason. Looking back, there must have been a reason. I just didn’t know what it was. But I did learn that huge portion sizes at that point were not the best idea – she just wasn’t used to large meals anymore.


Emotional state

Later that evening, she dropped a cigarette on the floor and burned a hole in the carpet. More tears followed and she asked to be taken home but I refused because it was late and was too tired to drive her home safely. When we went to bed, I put a nightlight on in the landing and a sign on the bathroom door so that she could find the toilet in the night. She woke up numerous times and each time she would use the toilet and then turn off the nightlight! I would get up and turn it back on so that she wouldn’t fall over in the dark, and she would get up and turn it off again. That light went on and off all night!

The next day, she asked to be taken home early. The whole experience was stressful for everyone but I learned a lot. It was too much to expect mum to adapt to a different environment. She didn’t feel safe or secure in a different place. She simply wanted to be with her family in her own home.

We’d learned our lesson. The following Christmas we went to mum’s, then took her out for Christmas lunch and spent the rest of the day at her home. She enjoyed being in her own environment, and liked being treated to lunch at her favourite restaurant. Christmas was a great success and it’s one of my most treasured memories.


When you plan Christmas, it’s important to carefully consider how you think the person with dementia will cope with a change in routine. To help you make the right choices, we asked the cognitive experts at Re:Cognition Health for their best tips on coping with Christmas:

Consider their wishes – What does Christmas mean to the person? If they are religious, going to church could be a good idea if this is something they would normally do. Think about how they would choose to spend their Christmas beforehand and if you can, do it with them.

Get them involved in tasks – If it’s possible for the person to assist you with domestic tasks or meal preparation then encourage them to help you. It will be good for their self-esteem and it means you can spend quality time together, working as a team.

Enlist support – Make sure that family and loved ones know they need to do their bit and ensure that everyone has their own responsibilities so that you aren’t carrying all of the pressure on your own.

Consider location carefully – If the person already lives with you, it’s going to be easier for them to stick to their normal routine. If they normally live alone or in a care home and you want to be with them, they may prefer to be in their own environment with you visiting them, rather than coming to you and being in a strange place they may not recognise.

Watch those food portions – Dementia can affect a person’s appetite and they may not want to eat a huge Christmas dinner. Give them a smaller portion and offer second helpings later if they are hungry. Avoid letting them drink too much to reduce the risk of arguments or falls later on.

Keep introducing – Remind them of the names of family and friends visiting and make sure you introduce and re-introduce everyone clearly (with reference to the relationship) to avoid embarrassment of not remembering names of grandchildren or relatives.

Manage the noise – People with dementia often find it difficult to listen to one person in a room where lots of people are talking. They are not able to distinguish one train of conversation when lots are going on within earshot, so don’t position them in the middle of a noisy room or in the middle of the table.

Look after yourself – Remember that you need a break from time to time as well. If you feel tired, ask another family member to sit with the person or accompany them on a walk.