TV repeats and seasonal songs can help people with dementia

While many of us might get a bit bored of the same old Christmas films, TV repeats and seasonal songs being rolled out each year, people with dementia can actually benefit from a touch of festive familiarity.

NHS England’s national clinical director for dementia and older people’s mental health Alistair Burns says singing along to White Christmas and re-watching classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and The Snowman can be particularly helpful to older people as they can stimulate memories and bring people together over the festive season by helping keep the brain active.

Re-watching these classic films from our younger years can stimulate ‘emotional memories’ in people with dementia. They might not remember the exact details of what guardian angel Clarence Oddbody showed James Stewart’s depressed George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, but they will recall how they felt at the end of the film.

It’s those emotional details which remain lodged in our minds and rekindling them improves a feeling of connectedness with other people which is so important for people with dementia and their loved ones.

Professor Burns said: “People with dementia might find it hard to follow convoluted conversations amid the chaos and noise of Christmas and can end up feeling excluded. Gathering the family round to watch a much-loved classic film, thumb through an old photo album, play a family game or even sing along to a favourite carol can bring people together and help everybody feel part of the fun.

“Helping people live well into old age and manage with dementia are key parts of the NHS Long Term Plan and with the NHS diagnosing a record number of older people with dementia this year, it’s vital we all do what we can to keep our brains active and social networks alive.”

Christmas can be something of a social whirl for many families – with a steady stream of house guests coming through the door – and for people with dementia, this departure from the familiar might feel strange, unsettling or confusing.

Professor Burns says there are, however, plenty of simple things families, friends and neighbours can do this Christmas to help make the festive season easier for people with dementia to navigate.

  • Put decorations up gradually so it doesn’t come as too much of a change
  • Help people who are frail or living with dementia feel included by getting them to assist with hanging a bauble or other simple tasks
  • Spread out family visits to keep things low key and familiar
  • Don’t overload on food – a full plate can be difficult to tackle for somebody with dementia who might have eating difficulties.
  • Be flexible with planning – be prepared to change plans if something isn’t working

Professor Burns also urged people to look out for signs of dementia among older family members and friends over Christmas – emotional changes and forgetfulness can sometimes be the first indication that someone has dementia.

Kathryn Smith, Chief Operating Officer at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Christmas is a wonderful time of year where people reconnect with loved ones. For the 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, it can pose difficulties, but at Alzheimer’s Society, we are here to help make sure that a dementia diagnosis doesn’t mean Christmas can’t continue to be full of festive fun.

“Whether it’s an old song they used to enjoy or a classic Christmas film, reminiscing can be beneficial to someone with dementia – it can help to maintain their self-esteem, confidence and sense of self, as well as improve social interactions with others. However, every person with dementia is different, so it’s important to listen and accommodate to your loved one’s unique needs and wishes.

“We know that the Christmas period can often be an overwhelming time, but Alzheimer’s Society’s website and Dementia Helpline is a good place to go for expert support, help and advice on how to have a dementia-friendly Christmas.”