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04 Dec 2015


Christina Macdonald’s efforts to treat her mother to a luxury spa break backfired badly and proved to be quite a learning curve

It might seem like a nice idea to treat a person with dementia to a short break away from home, especially if they have just been diagnosed or they are feeling depressed and generally not in good spirits. While this can certainly help to lift a person’s mood on some occasions, it’s important to be aware that it can become quite stressful for the person with dementia.

Taking a holiday means changing your routine and your environment. The climate, food and culture may be different if you’re going abroad. It’s a lot to take in. And if you’re someone who misses home comforts yourself when you go abroad, you can imagine how it must be for a person with dementia. A change of scenery and routine may sound ideal, but it can cause distress to someone who is already confused.

I learned this the hard way when I decided to take my mother, who has vascular dementia, for a short spa break at a luxurious health spa. She was very depressed about losing my father. Although it had been two years since he had died, she hadn’t accepted his death, which of course is understandable after more than 50 years of marriage. (Perhaps you never do accept the loss of a loved one completely). Add her dementia into the mix and with hindsight, I should have seen that things would go smoothly.

Friendly greeting
Driving to the health spa was the easy bit. My mother was in a relaxed mood and we were both quite happy to share each other’s company. The traffic was smooth. When we arrived at the spa, we were greeted by friendly staff and ushered to our table for lunch. We had a nice lunch and my mother enjoyed it. The trouble began when we got to our room. We were sharing a room, which I knew would be essential, as I didn’t want mum to get out of bed in the night and get lost. The room was clean and smart, but mum wasn’t impressed. She wasn’t used to a single bed and didn’t like the idea of being in a different environment. She didn’t know how to work the TV and was confused about where the bathroom was, even though it was next to her bed.

Then came the beauty treatments. Mum isn’t one for having massages and isn’t keen on physical contact with strangers, so I had arranged for her to have a pedicure instead. Although our room was just a short walk from the treatment reception area, I knew she wouldn’t remember the way back. So I walked with her to the reception area and waited while she had the treatment.

Before mum went in, she began to get quite distressed, and started looking around, commenting on the fact that people were wandering around in robes. When I pointed out that they wearing them because they were relaxing at a health spa and having treatments, she told me they were silly. (She had refused to wear her robe and was wearing her normal clothes.)

Mum had her pedicure but when she emerged from the treatment room, she looked angry. She had had her toenails painted and was shuffling along in slippers that had been given to her, scowling. The beauty therapist smiled at her and said: ‘Lovely to meet you Mrs Neal’. Mum turned to her and said: ‘I wish I could say the same to you! I’m not coming back here again. It’s like a bloody hospital!’

I was horribly embarrassed but I realised it was entirely my fault. Mum had observed the people wandering around in robes, seen the waiting area and likened the environment to a hospital.

Lack of sleep
We didn’t sleep much that night. Mum woke up regularly and was very confused. Waking up in the dark in a strange bed, in different surroundings, was too much for her. We left the spa a day early. Once we got her back home, she was fine again.

Hindsight truly is a wonderful thing. Much of what I’ve said here seems obvious when you read it back, yet the idea of a break together seemed like a good idea beforehand.

If you plan to take someone away, remember that they may not cope well with change. Consider how they are now. If they are regularly confused at home, they will be even more confused in a new environment. A different bed, a different room, waking up in strange surroundings may be too much for them. And you’ll be changing their routine.

I still wanted my mum to have regular breaks. So the solution that worked in the end was to take her out on day trips. That way, she could come home and sleep in her own bed, which made a huge difference to her mood and general wellbeing. Most importantly, it made her happier, not confused.

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