Christmas is an important time for families – a time to catch-up with relatives’ news, have fun, build new memories and reaffirm bonds. But how do you do that when a key member of the family has problems with communication and memory? Maizie Mears-Owens, Care UK’s head of dementia services, has found a new way to gently lead loved ones living with dementia into the festive season and increase their wellbeing. Here she explains how to make the 10 Boxes of Christmas.
Throughout Care UK’s 114 care homes we use memory boxes to engage people. We fill them with personalised items that mean something to them. It may involve items from their hobbies, careers or sports memorabilia but for Christmas I am suggesting families try an Advent style approach, with 10 boxes containing single items that will trigger memories of Christmas. Not only will they unlock memories but they will also prepare your loved-one for what will be happening in the home over the holidays.
Have fun making the boxes. You can use any size or shape, you can decorate them with themes or wrapping paper or Christmas cards and you can get the younger members of your family to join in.
Box 1 Smell is one of the most powerful prompts to memory and Christmas is packed with very distinctive smells. You can include a stick of cinnamon, a jar of all spice and many shops sell little bottles containing a liquid that smells of pine for people who have artificial trees. Sit down with your relative and talk about the scents and the memories they invoke
Box 2 Many homes, mine included, have a silver sixpence that has been handed down over the years to include in Christmas puddings. If you don’t have one they are easy to find in bric-a-brac shops and flea markets. The coin has a number of benefits to memory. Firstly you can talk about when they were young – did they ever get the sixpence? You can talk about years when they made the puddings and you can also talk about the year the coin was made: It may be worth doing a little bit of homework in advance on what happened nationally that year to prompt the start of the conversation.
Box 3 Now we take fresh and exotic fruit for granted, but a clementine or satsuma when our loved ones were young was a rare treat. For many people the smell and taste of a satsuma encapsulates Christmas. I have often put one in my parents’ stockings because when I was young we always laughed about what they had in their stockings, a satsuma being a prized item. Get them to rub it between their hands and feel the texture and to smell the skin in the wonderful moment you peel one. They will also enjoy the taste and the memories it brings.
Box 4 Looking around the shops, and online at sites like eBay there are lots of wonderful Christmas baubles and vintage decorations around this year. If you are not fortunate enough to have your original Christmas decorations, think about buying one of the modern replicas for the box. Talk with your loved-one about when you used to decorate the tree together and ask them about trees and decorations when they were young.
Box 5 – Have a look through your photo collection and theirs. Are there any from Christmas past? If you have visitors coming to the house for Christmas, are there any that include them so that you can start preparing your loved one for who is coming? You can add tinsel to the box. Tinsel has the added advantage of being very tactile, which is great for people with dementia. Try and include a really full length and encourage them to hold it and pull it through their hands.
Box 6 – The gift of music. Dig out one of your CDs of Christmas song or carols. You can have a sing along together or just sit and listen. Carols often take people further back as they remember singing them in school or church. For those who were grown up in the 1960s and 1970s the sounds of Phil Spector or Slade and Wizzard will bring back memories of family parties and work Christmas events.
Box 7 – Nothing sums up Christmas like a Nativity figure. Do you have a Nativity set that the family has used for many years? Put just one figure in the box – one you feel will particularly appeal to your loved one. It may be a person, an animal or the crib – it doesn’t matter as long as it appeals to them. Chat about Christmases when you have had a Nativity set. Did you ever have a large one in your church? Did they have a village one when they were young? Do they remember your school Nativity? Do they remember taking part in one? What is their favourite part of the Christmas story?
Box 8 – A Christmas cracker can bring fun. You can find inexpensive make-your-own kits in hobby shops and supermarkets. Is there something you can put in that would make them smile? You can use the cracker to reminisce about Christmas lunches past and also to discuss what will be happening this year and to ask them for their ideas.
Box 9 – Christmas paper and ribbons can be placed in box nine and, depending where your relative is in their pathway, you can either sit together and wrap a present, which will make them feel involved both at the time and when the gift is given, or you can get them to feel the paper and scrunch it up while you talk about opening parcels. You can laugh about the fun you have had in the past trying to wrap up bicycles or tennis rackets.
Box 10 – Finally what could be nicer that sitting down together with a mince pie? That morning, box up a piece of whatever cake symbolises Christmas to your family. Form some it is Stollen, for others Tunis cake or Dundee cake. Sit down with a cup of tea and have a chat about what cake to choose this year, and what they had in Christmases past. Did they make it with you? Did they make it with their mum? How did they manage during the years of rationing?
The boxes can contain whatever you want in whatever order – the important thing is that you share the experience and that the items mean something to your loved one. Encourage them to take in the smells and textures and do the same yourself – these boxes will help you to create your own memories for the future.
Whether you are visiting a loved living with dementia in their own home or in a care home, I hope that my idea of 10 Boxes of Christmas will help you to have enjoyable and helpful conversations that bring the whole family together this December.
And may I wish you a very happy and peaceful Christmas.