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Cracking Christmas conversation starters to support people with dementia

December 21 2018

A Care UK dementia expert is advising families to thinking about how to include loved ones with dementia in conversations this Christmas.

Suzanne Mumford explained: “As dementia progresses, following and joining in a conversation can become harder. This is particularly true when there are several people and several conversations going on, which typically happens around the dining table during the Christmas festivities.”

Suzanne believes taking a few minutes to think about conversation-starting questions can help everyone to enjoy the day more. She said: “As well as providing useful cues for conversations, these questions can help families to find out more about their loved one’s past and interests.

“Try to use your own memories to prompt the conversations – ‘I remember that we always had our stockings when we woke up but couldn’t have our presents until breakfast was finished – breakfast seemed to go on forever with ham, boiled eggs…’

“By taking time before Christmas to share your own memories over a cup of tea or a more festive drink, you can also get some useful information about what makes Christmas special to them and you can incorporate them into your celebrations, making it special and easier for them to enjoy and engage in.”

By reminiscing with the person rather than asking direct questions you help them to relax and this will often make a conversation easier than asking direct questions. Suzanne’s suggestions include:

  • I remember you always used to…… at Christmas;
  • The best present I ever received was……
  • You always made Christmas such a special time, you started in October making the Christmas cake, we used to love licking the spoon;
  • I remember you loved the carol Away in a Manger (sing together);
  • You used to get up early to get the turkey in – I don’t know how you did it’
  • Involve the person in peeling vegetables and seek their advice about how to prepare the meal;
  • Morecambe & Wise or the Two Ronnies? Which was the best Christmas television special?

By sharing Christmas traditions before the big day, you can find music and television programmes that they will enjoy and that may spark more Christmas memories during your conversations on the day.

Suzanne says it is important to create an atmosphere where your loved one can join in. She said: “Background music is nice, but do not play it during meal times, as it is another layer of sound over the sound of talking and eating. This can make the conversation hard to follow, even for other guests who may just be hard of hearing.”

Sometimes a person living with dementia may get confused about people’s names, what relationship they have with the person or what point in their life they are currently at. Suzanne said: “Try not to correct someone who is in this position, it can cause them confusion, distress or embarrassment, family members might want to make festive name badges to help.”

“Try to be on the same level as the person you are talking to and establish eye contact while you are talking to them, so they know you are talking to them and they can pick up on visual cues about the conversation. It also helps to speak clearly at a very slightly slower rate than you might usually speak during a family conversation, which tends to be fast and animated.”

Finally, Suzanne recommends creating a relaxing and inviting area where your loved one can go if they want some peace and quiet. She said:¨They may not be able to do a whole day of noise and excitement, so try to give some quiet times away from the crowd throughout the day, the person may need a snooze or just some gentle one-to-one time. Make sure they have a drink available and check in on them to ensure they are happy and comfortable and not in need of some quiet company.”

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