Celebrating Christmas with dementia

Christmas is just around the corner and caring for people with dementia around this time can be challenging, however with the appropriate dementia care strategies in place, you and your loved ones can enjoy the festive season. Our Dementia Services Manager, Rejane Le Grange, has some tips and ideas caring for people with dementia to help you through this holiday season.

Sensory considerations

People living with dementia try to deal with the input from the environment with reduced cognitive abilities.  To do so, the brain conserves energy by being more selective with the sensory stimulation it focuses on.  Appropriate sensory stimulation also provides a sense of joy and an opportunity to reminisce and feel loved. Some sensory considerations are:

Auditory:  Consider alternating between either short periods of social chat time, quiet times and/or down times listening to Christmas carols. A noisy and crowded environment can get too overwhelming for the elderly with dementia.

Visual:  People living with dementia have poor peripheral visual fields and poor depth perception.  Keep decorations simple and clear during the Christmas season. Ensure walkways are clear to reduce the risk of a slip or trip.  Don’t over decorate tables and don’t have large family groups all at once – too many things on a dining table and too many people in the room can make it difficult for people living with dementia to focus on a task and the environment at once.

Taste:  The elderly in general have a preference for sweet and sour tastes and Christmas time offers great opportunities to enjoy their favourite foods. For people living with dementia, consider finger food rather than food that needs cutlery.  Finger foods offer more control and independence and reduce the risk of overwhelming the person.  Cold meats and tapas style foods are ideal for this style of eating.

Smell:  Pleasant and familiar Christmas smells can bring back happy memories for a person living with dementia to enjoy.

Touch:  Comfort needs to be considered in terms of body temperature. When caring for people living with dementia, ensure they are wearing clothes that are comfortable and appropriate for the environment. Food textures should be considered, with a focus on safe swallowing and food that offers pleasure. For people living with dementia, encourage them to enjoy simple familiar tasks such as sharing a bon-bon with a grandchild, putting some decorations on a tree, or exploring some Christmas decorations collected in a basket.

General tips:

Here are a few tips to help when supporting someone with dementia:

  • Keep visits short with quiet rest time’s in-between. For instance, start with a midday breakfast with a small group. Keep the environment calm and focus only on conversations.
  • Organise rest time after a social activity. Rest in a quiet and calm environment like sitting in a comfortable chair where the Christmas tree can be viewed in silence or listen to favourite Christmas carols or other music.
  • If a person is active, allow them to inspect the tree, touch the decorations and add or remove decorations to or from a basket or the tree.
  • Gifts should be pleasurable and practical. Consider gifts that offer the opportunity to reminisce or enjoy a sensory pleasure.  Don’t gift wrap in complex packages, but instead put the gift in a little bag topped with tissue paper which is easy to manage and remove. Give only one gift at a time.
  • If the family member with dementia can still read, ask each family member to write a message or a trait they love about the person on a paper decoration that could be hanged on the tree. For instance:  “Bob is always kind”, “Bob loves his grandchildren”,  “Bob built the best planters for the garden”. Such activities for people living with dementia are therapeutic and bond the person to their family and confirm that they are still a valued member.

Meal time:

For families dealing with dementia, meal times can be stressful. Here are a few tips to make family meal times less chaotic:

  • Ensure the decorations on the table are festive but not cluttered. Red is a good colour to stimulate appetite.
  • The food plate should be easy to find and clear to see. Ensure the person living with dementia sits as close as possible to the table.  Each aspect of the celebrations should be one step at a time.  For instance, starting with the sharing of bon-bons and setting up with serviettes etc.  Then have a drink or a toast after which the first dish is served.  Plates should not overflow with food.  Offer only one dish at a time.  Start with a drink to wet the mouth before offering the next serve.  Offer a sip between each serve and the rest of the drink after the meal.
  • People living with dementia often feel compelled to do something with a drink that is within the visual field prompting them to sometimes tip it into their food. Therefore, place the drink during serves on the person’s non-dominant side outside the visual task field.

Residential care:

If your family member with dementia is living at an aged care home, it is important to have the right dementia care strategies to make most of the celebrations this season:

  • When collecting a family member with dementia who is at an advance stage, keep the outing to less than two hours.
  • If a longer day out is still enjoyed, organise small group times spread through late morning and later in the afternoon when it is a bit cooler, with rest times in between. A midday meal might not be ideal due to the heat.  Keep to the approaches already mentioned.  Take the family member with dementia back to the care home no later than 5:30 pm so that they can settle back into their regular routine.
  • If the family member with dementia is staying in the care home for Christmas, ensure one key family member joins in during the Christmas lunch and any other activities for dementia patients. Enjoy the larger family celebrations later at home.


Christmas is the time to celebrate with your loved ones and for everyone the celebration is different. For people living with dementia, the smallest of gestures can mean the most. Sitting quietly with the person, just holding their hand, offering a hand massage or a quiet walk in the garden are activities that could make the day special for you and them.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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