The Christmas gift for people living with dementia

Louise Morse reminds us how we can help those suffering with dementia to feel included and at ease this Christmas:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Supermarket shelves are full of all things Christmassy, and Sainsbury’s is handing out its seasonal food order forms. After months of Covid separation friends and families are planning to celebrate a ‘proper’ Christmas, one that includes worshipping together again in ‘real’ church services. And the company, the celebrations and the worship can bring a special blessing for people living with dementia. 

One of his greatest gifts is the way the Holy Spirit magnifies our understanding of all things spiritual (2 Corinthians 4: 18). Dementia affects the brain and cognition, but it doesn’t touch the soul and the spirit of a person, and at Christmas time, especially, the familiar carols can awaken important truths, as in some words from ‘O Holy Night’: ‘Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth’. 

This year Christmas will bring together people who have not seen each other for a long time and you may see some changes among older relatives. Experts are expecting a rise in dementia because of the Covid effect, and it is known that feelings of loneliness increase vulnerability to dementia. But forgetfulness and apathy may be due to mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that again, can be brought on by stress and loneliness. However, MCI is reversible in most cases.   

If your Christmas gatherings include someone with dementia or MCI you will want them to be at ease. They will enjoy the time better if their sensory input is not overloaded – a comfy chair in the corner, with a little side table for a cup of tea and a mince pie is better than being in the centre of a crowded room with high noise levels.  

An excellent example I know of that including someone with a disability without putting them under pressure happened around a hospital bed. Marie, in her late 60s, was recovering after major surgery. She had a large family of six children, and one evening they came into the hospital and, after greeting her with a careful hug, found some chairs and sat around her bed and chatted amongst themselves, with an occasional word or nod to her. She clearly felt included, but was not expected to make an effort to join in (although she did a few times, of course). She was just happy to have them there and see them being family. Each of them brought a little gift and put it on her bedside locker, which made it look like Christmas. 

At Christmas time, through the worship and familiar, beloved hymns and liturgy, deep calls to deep and the Holy Spirit speaks to our spirits. We are ‘strangely warmed’ as John Wesley described an experience of his. It touches the essence of who we are, and can make our spirits soar. Spirit-to-spirit communication bypasses a damaged brain, and makes a soul feel its worth. It may also help the person emerge from the fog, with faculties that they had apparently lost. It happens at other times of the year of course, but there is more stimulus at Christmas with its church services, worship and Scripture readings.

You can also find on our website a small programme of Brain & Soul Boosting for Seniors (BSBS) at Christmas time. We are receiving good reports about the results being seen. The Christmas version is suitable for a small group or a couple. Also good for sharing together is our new picture book, ‘God’s Word in God’s World’. It was designed by Ruth Ranger, whose father lives in one of our homes. Looking at the pictures and repeating the Scripture verses out loud can be a boon for someone living with dementia. .  

Louise Morse is a speaker and author of several books on issues of old age, including dementia. She is also external relations manager with the Pilgrims’ Friend Society, a Christian charity founded in 1807 to help support needy elderly Christians. 

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