How buying the right Christmas gift can bring back happy memories

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As we walk around the shops or search across the web seeking just the right gift for the right person, Pauline Houchin, Care UK’s head of care and clinical services, says that gift-giving opens up lots of opportunity to tap into the memories of loved ones living with dementia or age-related cognitive decline.

“Gift-buying for older relatives can be a very rewarding experience, because a little thought can bring exceptional results that improve your loved one’s wellbeing and help to create new memories of them for you and your own family.

“At our 114 care homes, we spend a great deal of time finding out the likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests of residents because that’s what makes them individuals. Think back to your earlier memories of them to start gathering ideas about the things they have loved and talk to them about what places, people, jobs and hobbies were important to them. These conversations will help you give the perfect gifts and will spark conversations that you’ll both enjoy.

“Mindfulness has become very popular in recent years and out of that has come a trend for adult colouring books. These can be the perfect present for those who have enjoyed crafts and been creative throughout their lives. The books are designed for adults and so aren’t patronising. They have beautiful pictures with themes from nature to cityscapes that can be completed in a rainbow of cheerful colours. This is also something grandparents or aunts and uncles can share with their younger relatives.

“This kind of activity has a number of benefits for people living with dementia. It not only helps to keep up life-skills and eye-hand co-ordination, but is calming and can be done day and night. Often sleeping patterns become disturbed as dementia progresses and people may become agitated – these books can help and so make a marvellous gift.

“Smell is a very powerful awakener of memories, so a much-loved perfume or aftershave is ideal because it is not only a nice gift that helps to maintain grooming routines, but it sparks memories too. Scents from the past are helpful in rolling back the years; 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 a number of my older relatives wore.

“Try thinking back and see if any of the perfumes they wore before are still available. Back in the 1970s my mum wore Tweed and Charlie and these are still available online and in pharmacies. I walked passed a display the other day and suddenly my younger years flooded back as I smelt the perfume that had been the signature of my early years.

“Closely akin to smell is the sense of taste. The trend for old fashioned sweet shops means buying sweet treats from a loved one’s past is a great deal easier. As people age, their taste buds fade and chefs in our homes report that people develop a sweet tooth. Talk to them about their favourite sweets from their childhood to see what they used to enjoy.

“For some sweets it’s possible to completely recreate the past, as the old adverts are available on the internet. I have found the Milk Tray Man, Chewitts – chewier than Barrow-in-Furness bus station – Frys Turkish Delight and Flake adverts going back to the 1960s. Also for many of us, Christmas is not Christmas without a box of Newberry Fruits – something that families never ate at any other time of year but, in their home, it wasn’t the holiday season until a box was in the house.

“Our home activities co-ordinators also know the importance of music in helping to form personal connections and helping people tune in to their past. CDs make wonderful presents. 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, because in her mind she is 40 and enjoying listening to the Beatles, Mungo Jerry or Brotherhood of Man. The important thing is to keep talking to the person to find out what they like. Another great gift is a small MP3 player. We’ve seen families use this very successfully in many of our homes. They create a playlist of someone’s favourite music and this means they can enjoy it when maybe they’re unable to recognise or choose a CD.

“DVDs too make a useful present as they bring back memories of another era and trips to the ‘flicks’. Just as with the music, find out where they are in their minds and tailor the films to that, choosing films from the appropriate decade. As dementia increases, the ability to concentrate can diminish. Compilation DVDs that have the best songs, dances or scenes from much-loved films can be the answer as they are full of life but don’t require too much concentration.

“Board and card games, such as Monopoly and Cluedo, can also be fun as they keep your relative engaged in the afternoon’s activities as well as bringing back memories from family fun. As dementia develops, it may not be possible for them to play more complex games, so keep to simple family favourites such as snakes and ladders or ludo.

“People with more advanced dementia also like to feel different textures. There are specialist cushions with different textures but there are many textured cushions on the high street to which you can add ribbons and buttons. Fur, silk, material which rustles and leather are really good to use, and are readily available from most haberdashers.

“The important thing is to have fun and be guided by your loved one. Take lots of photos and create your new family memories together.”

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