The festive season is always a bittersweet time for me. As I write my BRACE Christmas cards, I’m reminded that this is the eighth Christmas that I’m not including dad’s name, and whilst the pain that accompanied the first one has gone the sadness of dad’s absence remains.

My dad lived with vascular dementia for nineteen years, going ten years without a diagnosis before spending the last nine years of his life in care homes. Those care home Christmases were surreal times. In the run up to the big day we would decorate dad’s room with traditional items that he was familiar with and fix his cards to the side of his wardrobe. Then on Christmas morning we would arrive - me resplendent in my Santa hat - with the camera, presents and a determination to try and be happy despite the circumstances.

Presents mostly took the same form: new clothes - since clothing wears out so quickly in care homes - winter warming items and new CD’s of much-loved music. Before dad developed dysphagia (swallowing problems) we would also buy him chocolates and share other yummy festive treats together.

Those Christmases when dad was living with dementia were all about us trying to make the festive season the best it could be for him. Accepting that established family routines and traditions often have to be modified or abandoned can be one of the most difficult aspects of Christmas for a person with dementia and their family, and as a result the festive season can be an incredibly lonely and isolating time for people with dementia and family carers if the invitations that might have been forthcoming don’t materialise.

If a big family Christmas is planned, helping relatives to understand a little bit more about dementia prior to those get-togethers can be helpful to enable everyone to support the person with dementia appropriately. For example, it is not uncommon for people with dementia to forget how to open cards or presents – we coped with this by gently helping dad, rather than just waiting, or demanding, that he manage alone.

Other Christmas traditions may also need adaptation. Decorations can be dangerous if the person with dementia doesn’t understand what they are, certain colours or flashing lights can be upsetting or disorientating, an excessively decorated or crowded dining table could distract from eating, the traditional menu may need to be adapted if a loved one’s food preferences have changed, and festive background music can cause confusion and make communication harder.

Whilst that may sound like a lot of change, from my experiences being adaptable and flexible is so worthwhile. Looking back now over the Christmases with my dad during his years with dementia, I would advise anyone in the position that we were in to make the most of those special times together. They don’t last forever, and Christmas is overwhelmingly a time to come together, embracing the most vulnerable amongst us in particular.

Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year.

About the author:

Beth Britton is an award-winning content creator, consultant, trainer, mentor, campaigner and speaker who is an expert in ageing, health and social care