HEALTH

250,000 Australians With Dementia Are Celebrating Christmas In The Community

Here's how to care for your loved ones.

22/12/2016 7:23 AM AEDT | Updated 22/12/2016 7:23 AM AEDT
DOF-PHOTO by Fulvio
A person with dementia is not lost. Find a way to reach them.

There are approximately 353,800 Australians living with dementia -- a figure that is expected to rise to more than 900,000 by 2050.

With 70 percent of those people living in the community, a number of households will be supporting their loved ones with dementia this festive season.

When you are living with a cognitive impairment, you rely on things being familiar and usual. Busy social occasions and frantic family gatherings around Christmas change all of that.

"The hustle and bustle of Christmas can be challenging for people living with dementia -- as is the change in routine," Juliet Kelly, from health and aged care provider HammondCare's Dementia Centre, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"When you are living with a cognitive impairment, you rely on things being familiar and usual. Busy social occasions and frantic family gatherings around Christmas change all of that so it is important to be aware that this is not something that is going to be easy for them to cope with."

These environments can exacerbate a range of stressors to a person living with dementia -- from noise levels to lighting.

"Dementia is not just about memory. It also changes sensory processing -- both visual and auditory -- which means that they may struggle to see, hear or understand what is happening in a situation," Kelly said.

"They may not remember or be aware of when or how they have arrived at a gathering, or they may become increasingly stressed over background noise."

Here's what you can do to manage or reduce these stressors.

Getty Images
This can help.

Stir conversation

Let's start with dementia itself.

"At this time, it's important to think about trying to turn around the image of dementia and the stigmas associated with it," Kelly said.

"Once we accept that dementia is a form of disability, we can start to think about what we, as able-minded people, need to do to adapt to the situation and assist the person. This requires us to stand in their shoes and think about what they're experiencing."

When it comes to conversing with your loved one, tap into what you know.

"You might have a whole life history and a rich source of information that you can draw on. Use this," Kelly said, suggesting photo albums, home videos and memorabilia to stir memory.

Tap into music

The healing powers of music for Alzheimer's patients, the most common cause of dementia, have been well documented. Tap into this, this Christmas.

According to Kelly, music can not only evoke memories for those living with dementia, but it can also stir connections.

"All of us can think of a song that stems from our Christmas childhood. For someone living with dementia, this can evoke memories and bring cues when your memory is otherwise letting you down," Kelly said.

Put on a piece of music, and although a person may be unable to speak, they may start to sing.

"Sitting down to listen to music with someone else is powerful. It enables to you connect on an emotional level -- even if you are unable to share a detailed conversation."

This can, in turn, be helpful for carers themselves.

"It gets over some of the idea that dementia means a person is lost. They're not lost, they're still there. We just need to find a way of reaching them."

Nick Dolding
Music is power.

Kelly recommends using music that the person is familiar with and knows well.

"Think about what music this person enjoyed when they were younger and what they would have associated with Christmas," Kelly said.

"That will help them to enjoy and join in -- and also understand what is happening."

What's on the table?

1. Make sure the table setting isn't too complicated. "We tend to go all out dressing the table, but this isn't always ideal," Kelly said. "Consider making sure that the plates stand out by using a white plate with a red placemat."

2. Think about serving foods of different colours and textures so they are visible to the person.

3. Keep cutlery simple. "This can be an over-stimulation. Try not to have too many pieces," Kelly said. "If a person is losing the ability to recognise cutlery, put it in their hands as a sensory prompt."

4. Finger food is a great option. "Think about creating some courses featuring finger food for the whole table to enjoy," Kelly said. We're talking Christmas pudding balls over a whole pudding. Mmm.

5. Pace is important. "You can really get into that hustle and bustle of people passing plates," Kelly said. "Serving the food directly onto plates can minimise the business around the Christmas table."

How's your lighting?

Make sure the area is well lit.

"It can be tempting to arrange an atmospheric, candle-lit dinner. But this, again, may not be the most helpful or supportive thing for the person who is managing visual or perceptive changes," Kelly said.

Always ask.

"Many people living with dementia are still very able to express an opinion. Asking them should always be our first reaction," Kelly said.

"Think about how you ask the question. If you want to offer someone a slice of Christmas cake, bring the cake to them so they can see what you are offering. Offer a visual cue rather then expecting them to rely on understanding verbal language."

Visit HuffPost Australia's profile on Pinterest.

More On This Topic