Each year around Thanksgiving time, I am asked the question, “What can I get my loved one with dementia for Christmas?” I have hesitated to respond in any great way because I don’t have a groundbreaking list or answer. Each person is different, each person’s needs and wants may inform a different list. I have decided this year to respond to that frequent question knowing that it is sometimes helpful to reframe our gift-giving habits, our relationships with others, and remember we all approach the dementia journey in different ways.
The gifts I recommend are not all material, and in some cases, they are best given throughout the year. This time (especially for those living in a care community) is a rush of activity. From decorating the community to an increase in parties, organizations, and schools coming in to “do good” during the holiday season. Not everyone can go home during this time, and though the world looks and sounds different within their community, it is still the same day to day life. So, the first gift is to think about something you do that can be spread out throughout the year. Have your classroom, our scout troop, your children visit and perform in January when the days are cold and dark, in May when new colors appear, in August when the idea of sitting down and eating a bowl of ice cream with others sounds like the perfect afternoon. Or in November when the loneliness and loss intensifies as we approach the holiday season.
- Two boxes of cards. One for you and one for them. Send them little notes throughout the year and offer the opportunity to reciprocate, send their granddaughter a birthday card, or a friend a note of hello. Even if someone else reads and writes the letters for your loved one, it is a gift that continues to let the person know you are thinking of them, and care about them, and they have the gift of being able to the same for you or others. You can get note cards from everywhere from Etsy to Target. Find a local artist or make your own!
- Items that feed their hobbies and interests. Books, art supplies, games, movies, music, technology. Think about how your loved one likes to spend time. Are they a reader? Do they like puzzles and games? Do they enjoy watching new/old movies? Are they fascinated by technology and there is something in that world you could purchase for them within your budget? Think about who this person is, was, and still can become. Think about what you do together. Would a meal subscription box be something of interest? One that invites weekly or monthly dinner nights, cooking together and enjoy a meal in one’s company. A new rosary? A mini window herb garden? Be creative and think about what they enjoy, and how you can support them in that enjoyment.
- Clothing is oftentimes a go-to for many people, but if a loved one relies on the care community or another service to do the laundry, families may hesitate to purchase new or nice clothing. It is wrong to assume people of a certain age don’t care about how they look. I think the growing number of “mature” bloggers (and the number of followers they have) speaks against that idea. I would encourage you to think about clothing if your loved one might like some new clothes or needs a few more things. Think about, does this person like to put a top on over their head? Or should it be button-down? Are they always cold? Hot? Shop for how they dressed when they were purchasing all of their clothing. Think of favorite colors and materials. All of this can bring a level of comfort and even joy. I think Dudley Stephens fleeces are a great option that offer a variety of styles. Shop Brooks Brothers sales, or your favorite local clothing store for quality clothing without spending too much.
- Watches, clocks, and calendars. From experience, I can say that many people find comfort and some control when they can look at a clock, their watch, or a calendar to know what time it is, or the day of the week. Even when reading that time or date becomes difficult, it leaves a lingering sense of control in one’s life. If an Apple Watch is in the budget, and your loved one is someone that might use something like that, I have found great success with this type of gift. When scheduling the day and setting notification, it brings that sense of “I have not lost everything.” into one’s life. Even if you or another care partner still help remind them, set out medications, and goe to bring this individual down to a meal or event, it becomes a powerful tool for maintaining a sense of self and quality of life. This may not work for everyone, but don’t discard it, nor expect it to replace your care.
- Photographs and elements of their home, if they are living in a care community.
- Your time. Your laughter. Your stories. Your smile. Take time to visit, even on the holiday itself, if you are unable to host them in your home or with the rest of the family. If you have a rocky relationship with this individual this can be a hard gift to give, but it may be one of the best gifts they will receive. Don’t assume that because people are around them all the time that they are not lonely, or lonely for your specific relationship with them.
- Finally, and maybe most importantly, keep the faith that these holidays represent. Remove the secular and instill faith. Help them grow in faith and enjoy these Holy days. If all the decorations in your community don’t make it up this year, or if not all the cookies are baked, let that go, allow for moments of quiet reflection and prayer. And once the day itself is done, keep the decorations up, help the spirit remain a while longer. Christmas is not a light switch that turns off on the 26th. Faith is not something you plug into and then unplug from. And, growth in faith does not end because dementia has shown up.
Not all gifts need to be related to dementia, a thing, or crammed into the month of December. Give the gift of the best version of yourself, caring for and loving each person. Listen, see, and love the other and you will learn what you need to do.