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Buying last minute Christmas gifts for someone who has dementia

December 18 2013

Buying the perfect present is a challenge at any time, but what do you buy a loved one for Christmas who has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia?

Maizie Mears-Owens, Care UK’s head of dementia services, says that, in many ways, you already have the answer:

“There is a lot to be said for buying presents based on your knowledge of the person’s likes and dislikes.”

“Smell is a very powerful jogger of memories, so a much-loved perfume, talc, soap or aftershave is ideal because it is a nice gift, it helps to maintain grooming routines and the smell can bring back memories which is also beneficial.

Scents from the past, not just current favourites, are also helpful. Maizie said: “I know myself that if I smell lily of the valley or lavender it takes me right back to my childhood, because it was a perfume my Nan wore. So it can be a good idea to think back and see if any of the perfumes they have worn before are still available.”

Care UK’s specialist dementia team and its home activities coordinators also know the importance of music in helping to form personal connections and helping people tune in to their past. Maizie said: “CDs make wonderful presents and the internet means we can now get access to some music from many decades ago that you wouldn’t find in your average high street.”

“The trick is to find out where the person is in their memory. A lady in her eighties may not want to hear music from the 1940s or 1950s despite what people think, because in her mind, she is in her 40s and enjoys listening to Diana Ross, Gilbert O’Sullivan or The Carpenters. The important thing is to keep talking to the person to find out what they might enjoy listening to.”

DVDs too make a useful present as they bring back memories of another era and even visits to the cinema. Especially useful are the compilation DVD that have the best songs, dances or scenes from much-loved films as they are full of life and don’t require too much concentration.

Rose Elliot, Care UK’s specialist triage expert, has spent her career in mental health nursing and research and she offers tailor-made advice to homes and families across the south of England. She said: “Christmas can still be a magical time for families and there is a lot of fun to be had being creative with your gifts.”

Rose particularly likes memory boxes, designed to trigger memories and conversations. She explained: “You just need a box that you can cover with nice paper and a theme to work with, such as Christmas, family holidays or the seaside.

“You then collect old photos of the person connected to the theme and then build up mementos. For example, if it were the seaside, you may include postcards, shells, rock and old photos of seaside resorts the person knows, which you can find on the internet.”

People with more advanced dementia also like to feel different textures and Rose suggests using different fabrics to make a sensory book. “Fur, silk, material which rustles, leather and the like are really good to use and readily available from most haberdashers,” she said.

The Care UK dementia team says that it can be beneficial to involve loved ones in making presents for their family. Rose said: “They are from a generation that used to make presents and sitting down decorating a jar or little box and filling it with bath crystals or small soaps, or decorating cakes, knitting or making cards, is not only creative and rewarding for the person themselves but it gives you a chance to sit, chat and laugh about Christmases past.”

Most importantly, the dementia team are keen to remind everyone that the best gift most of us can give to an older person is the gift of time.  Time to chat over a cup of tea, to run small errands or simply sit and listen to music together can mean a lot to someone who may be feeling lonely or isolated.

People looking for other activities to do with a loved one living with dementia over the Christmas period might also like to download a copy of the ABC booklet which is packed with suggestions for things to do with a family member with dementia who is  staying with you over the Christmas period or on visits to people in care homes.

Care UK runs 109 care homes and also provides care for thousands of people living in their own homes.

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