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How to Support Relatives with Dementia at Christmas

Article by Maizie Mears-Owen

Family With Christmas Presents At Home

Everyone wants Christmas to be magical but if your family includes someone living with dementia, that can present challenges which add to your stress levels. Maizie Mears-Owen, Care UK’s head of dementia services, offers advice on how support relatives with dementia at Christmas so that everyone can relax and feel loved and included in the festivities:

  1. Before the big day, get everyone together and have fun over the arts and crafts table. Christmas cards are easy to make and the shops have plenty of traditional paper chain kits which are the perfect way to engage an older person in the Christmas preparations.
  2. Why not gently lead loved ones living with dementia into the festive season and increase their wellbeing using a technique I have devised called the Ten Boxes of Christmas? Throughout Care UK’s 114 care homes we use memory boxes to engage people. We fill them with personalised items that mean something to them. It may involve items from their hobbies, career or sports memorabilia but for Christmas I recommend memory boxes with a twist – an Advent theme. Here’s how:

Create 10 Boxes of Christmas

Firstly make ten little boxes, any size or shape, you can decorate them with themes or wrapping paper or the covers of old Christmas cards. Then fill them using the following suggestions and every few days, perhaps when you visit you loved one, sit down together and open one of the boxes:

  • Box 1 Smell is a powerful way to unlock memories and Christmas is packed with very distinctive smells. You can include a stick of cinnamon, a jar of mixed spice or a little bottle of pine fragrance. Sit down with your relative, open the box and talk about the scents and the memories they invoke


  • Box 2 Many homes have a coin such as a sixpence that has been handed down over the years to include in Christmas puddings. If you don’t have one, they are easy to find in bric-a-brac shops and jumble sales. The coin can be a prompt to talk about when they were young – did they ever get the sixpence? You can talk about times when they made the puddings and the year the coin was made: It may be worth doing a little bit of homework in advance on what was in the news that year to prompt the start of the conversation.


  • Box 3 The smell and taste of a satsuma encapsulates Christmas. Get them to rub it between their hands and feel the texture and to smell the skin in the wonderful moment you peel one. They will also enjoy the taste and the memories it brings.
  • Box 4 If you are not fortunate enough to have your original Christmas decorations, think about buying one of the modern replicas for the box. Talk with your loved one about when you used to decorate the house together and ask them about trees and decorations when they were young.
  • Box 5 Have a look through your photos. Are there any from Christmas past? If you have visitors coming for Christmas, are there any pictures that include them so that you can start preparing your loved one for who is coming?
  • Box 6 Find a CD of Christmas songs or carols. Then when you open the box have a sing along together or just sit and listen. Carols often take people further back as they remember singing them in school or church. For those who were growing up in the 1960s and 1970s the sounds of Slade, Cliff Richards or Wizzard will bring back memories of family gatherings and work parties.


  • Box 7 Nothing sums up Christmas like a Nativity figure. Perhaps you have a Nativity set that the family has used for many years? Put just one figure in the box – one you feel will particularly appeal to your loved one. It may be a person, an animal or the crib – it doesn’t matter. Use this as a prompt to chat about Christmases when you have had a Nativity set. Did you ever have a large one in your church? Do they remember your school Nativity? Do they remember taking part in one? What is their favourite part of the Christmas story?


  • Box 8 A Christmas cracker which you can use to reminisce about Christmas lunches past and also to discuss what will be happening this year and to ask them for their ideas and preferences.


  • Box 9 Christmas paper, sticky tape and ribbons can be placed in box nine and, depending where your relative is in their dementia journey , you can either sit together and wrap a present, or you can get them to feel the paper and silky ribbon while you talk about opening parcels. You can also laugh about the fun you have had in the past trying to wrap up teddy bears or potted plants.


  • Box 10 Finally what could be nicer that sitting down together with an edible treat? If diet allows, in the box pop a piece of whatever cake symbolises Christmas to your family. For some it is stollen, for others Tunis cake or Dundee cake or a mince pie. Sit down with a cup of tea and have a chat about what cake to choose this year, and what they had in Christmases past. Did they make it? How did they manage during the years of rationing?

The boxes can contain whatever you want in whatever order – the important thing is that you share the experience and that the items mean something to your loved one. Encourage them to take in the smells and textures and do the same yourself – these boxes will help you to create your own memories for the future.

Bring back memories for those with dementia

  1. Decorating the tree is another good way to spend family time. For many families there are special decorations that have special meanings and can bring back lots of memories. Make an occasion of it with carols and, if medication allows, a glass of mulled wine.
  2. Make a list of useful telephone numbers including out of hours medical services, order repeat prescriptions and book any health appointments well in advance. Make sure your relative has packed medication or medical support aids if they are going to be away.
  3. On Christmas morning, decades of Christmas memories can re-awaken if you stick to your traditional Christmas. Go to church, if that is what your family do, open stockings – just enjoy the moment. But remember to have a quiet place ready for your loved one to go as the hurly-burly of present opening, noisy toys and over-excited youngsters can prove too much for someone whose senses have changed.
  4. At meal times, try to keep table settings as simple as possible to limit confusion as sometimes a person living with dementia may misinterpret decorations as food. Check whether special cutlery is required well in advance and think about plating up the food as the impairments to eyesight that dementia brings may make it hard for a loved one to negotiate the serving dishes. Also try and use a plate with a colour that contrasts against the food. This makes it easier to see the meal and avoids confusion and anxiety. Remember – appetites can decline with age so don’t be offended if not much is eaten.
  5. In the early stages of dementia people can still follow the rules of card and board games they have played before, so it could be time to get out some of the old family favourites.
  6. Encourage other family members to take peek inside Listen, Talk, Connect which gives ideas on communicating with people living with dementia so that everyone can contribute to the conversation.

Christmas is an important time for families – a time to catch-up with relatives’ news, have fun, build new memories and reaffirm bonds. Following some of these tips can help reduce your stress level and might mean that friend or loved one isn’t left being lonely this festive season.


Finally, may I wish you a very happy and peaceful Christmas.


Ceri Wheeldon

Ceri is Founder and Editor of Fabafterfifty.co.uk She is a frequent speaker at events and in the media on topics related to women over 50 , including style and living agelessly. With 20+ years experience as a headhunter Ceri also now helps support those looking to extend their working lives.

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