The festive season is nearly upon us. With it come excited children, decorations in our homes, gift buying, feasts and entertainment. However, celebrating Christmas when a loved one is in a nursing home can feel complex, bewildering or anxiety-inducing. This guide is designed to address the main concerns surrounding Christmas and nursing homes or residential care, including when your loved one has dementia. We look at ways to celebrate, adjustments you may need to make and even gift ideas.
Your first step should be to consider how things are now, not how they were in years gone by. Christmas is a time soaked in tradition. But, if this is the first Christmas since your loved one moved in to the nursing or residential home, then there will need to be some rethinking. This is also true if your loved one’s dementia symptoms or physical or cognitive health have notably deteriorated since this time last year.
Before you abandon hope that Christmas can still be a happy time with plenty of family celebration, taking stock of the current state of play is simply to help make appropriate plans. It is possible to have a wonderful and enjoyable Christmas even when a loved one is in a care home.
Traditions and other demands on your time from adult children and grandchildren can mean that you are torn between what you’d like to do and what is fair on your family member in a home.
Firstly, if your loved one is in residential care, rather than nursing care, it is often possible for them to join you for a Christmas away from home. With time off work and from other responsibilities, you may have time at Christmas to dedicate to supporting their needs in a way you can’t normally. Speak to the staff at your loved one’s home and ask what is realistic and whether any special preparations need to be made.
If your loved one requires nursing care or specialist dementia care then it is unlikely that they will be able to travel with you for Christmas. They may be able to join you for part or all of a day, but this will depend on the individual. Again, speak to the carers at the home. They should be open with you and also help you consider what is possible.
Should you be going away and it isn’t possible for your loved one to join you then let the staff know and they will be able to reassure you about plans for Christmas within the home.
At Eastleigh Care Homes in North Devon and Somerset, Christmas is always a magical time with plenty of accessible and appropriate ways of celebrating for our residents according to their individual needs.
If this year is the first time that your loved one is in a home for Christmas then don’t ignore this fact. Speak with them openly about this, if possible, and find out how they feel about it. They may want to talk about it, or they may not. Respect their decision, but don’t ignore it full stop. Christmas can highlight for both residents and their families how things have changed.
Where possible, include the family member in your plans. This can still be a positive and enjoyable time; it just takes some concerted thought.
For many families, the best solution is to combine their Christmas celebrations with a visit to their loved one in the home. This is particularly ideal for those in nursing care or who are suffering from dementia. The individual is therefore still cared for, with many aspects of the day being familiar, but there is the opportunity to celebrate together without any stress.
Again, at Eastleigh our Christmas dinners are legendary! Our chefs create impressive cuisine all year around, but at Christmas it’s even better! Try not to think of your loved one as ‘missing out’, but instead think about what they are gaining.
Speak to the home about what time is good for you to visit and ask about what Christmas Day looks like in the home. You should always feel welcome to visit your loved one. Typically, a good nursing home will be a vibrant and positive place for visitors over the festive period.
Speaking of delicious festive fare, everyone has their own traditions. Whilst we of course serve up turkey and the works, followed by Christmas pudding, it can be nice to bring in some food-related traditions from the family. Perhaps you follow your loved one’s recipe for homemade mince pies? Maybe they would always eat cheese on Christmas Day evening with their own parent’s festive chutney?
If possible, bring in gifts of food for your loved one which you know they always loved in years gone by.
This has the benefit of enabling your loved one to feel thought of even when you are not there. Furthermore, for dementia sufferers it can be a connection with the past which feels secure.
There’s always someone on your list who is hard to buy for! It’s quite likely that it will be someone in a care home that leaves you stumped. Whilst the appropriate gifts will largely depend on the abilities and cognitive function of your loved one, here are some of our favourite ideas:
Take care when wrapping gifts for elderly people not to make them difficult to open. Use less sticky tape than you perhaps would if you’re expecting a gift to survive Santa’s sack!
Of course, the best gift you can give is time. Try to encourage busy grandchildren to make some room in their diaries to visit. Arrange for friends to pop by. You could even use Skype or Facetime with them to bring more relatives together than you normally can. You could offer to comb their hair, share a meal in the home, or play a board game together.
Of course, Christmas isn’t really just about the day itself. Celebrations happen throughout the festive period. There are some ways to include and involve your loved one.
If your loved one has always been diligent with sending Christmas cards, they may want this to continue. On a visit prior to Christmas, sit down together to write the cards together as they will likely need some help.
Similarly, make sure there is a way to display the Christmas cards your loved one receives in their room. Speak to staff if you are unsure about hanging anything, such as a card holder, to the wall.
Give some thought to the gifts that your loved one may like to give. Whilst it is of course possible, and sometimes appropriate, for them not to do gifts this year, they may very much want to. However, they will need support. You can discuss the gifts they want to get with them, make a list and do the shopping for them. They may like to be shown different options online.
When the shopping is done, either wrap the presents for them, or just use gift bags. Help your loved one to write, or sign, the tags themselves.
The nursing home or residential care home will likely have its own Christmas traditions. Local carol singers may come and give a concert, local schools may come to share tea, or perhaps there’s always a Christmas themed quiz night on the social calendar? Find out how your loved one can be included in the in-home celebrations. You may also find that some of these events can include family members.
If your loved one has dementia, or their dementia symptoms have worsened since last Christmas, then some special considerations need to be taken in to account. Christmas – with its excitement and changes to normal routine – can be bewildering for someone with dementia. Care needs to be taken to ensure the festive period doesn’t unsettle or upset them.
However, those with dementia will often find that older memories are easier to access and more comforting than recent ones. Therefore, strongly held Christmas traditions can help a resident with dementia to feel secure, loved and at ease.
For this reason, if your loved one has always celebrated Christmas in particular ways it can be really beneficial to share this information with the staff caring for them. It may be possible to include elements of their lifelong traditions within the home.
Gifts for those with dementia which focus on reminiscence are often very valuable. Avoid giving a gift which involves learning a new skill, but photos of the past, for example, can be a wonderful option. In more advanced stages, soft toys or dolls can be appropriate and give great joy, as can music from their childhood or teen years.
If you are visiting a relative with dementia over the festive period, it will likely be best to do this individually or in small groups. Excited or loud chatter can be disorientating and they may feel more secure if visitors are singular and calm.
When dementia is advanced it is best to keep Christmas festivities low key with minimal noise and fuss. The staff at your loved one’s home will be able to give advice on what is best for your loved one.
Going through the festive period with a loved one in nursing or residential care can be upsetting for you too. You may feel that you can’t please everyone, or that you are ‘spread too thinly’. You may struggle knowing you’ve got extra tasks to do, such as shopping or card writing, on your loved one’s behalf. You may also find it hard hearing about other people’s celebrations, and be upset thinking about the passing of time and how things have changed. You could even feel resentful that your traditions and plans are being impacted.
These are all normal reactions at this time of year. It is therefore important that you feel supported this Christmas too. Speak with other family members about how you can ‘share the load’. Reminisce together about previous Christmas times. Talk to friends and make sure you have some time celebrating Christmas in the way you want.
Additionally, speak to the staff caring for your loved one. They will help offer support and advice on how to make Christmas easier for everyone, as well as reassure you that your loved one is secure and well cared for.