With over 850,000 individuals in the UK living with dementia, there are more people than ever being diagnosed with the condition. And when the time comes to celebrate important birthdays, it can often be confusing and unsettling for your loved one with dementia. It’s not that they don’t want to celebrate their birthday – it may be that they can’t remember when their birthday is or what happens when it’s someone’s birthday. As well as being difficult for your loved one, it may be upsetting for you too, particularly if you’re celebrating a milestone birthday.
This year, Helping Hands are celebrating their 30th year in care and as the leading Dementia Care Specialists for home care in the UK, we understand how difficult it can be to celebrate a birthday of someone living with dementia. We’ve put together some tips and thoughts on how you can celebrate a loved one’s birthday, regardless of their dementia diagnosis.
Organising a celebration
Living with dementia doesn’t just affect memory function, it affects physical and emotional functions too. For someone that perhaps used to love being the centre of attention and was the life and soul of the party, to now becoming anxious and uncomfortable around lots of people, may be quite upsetting and unusual. However, feeling overwhelmed by lots of noise is quite common for someone living with dementia, due to the condition affecting hearing and being able to distinguish between different voices in a conversation.
Having friends and family over for a barbeque or get-together may seem like a fairly low-key celebration, but this could simply be too much for your loved one. The visuoperceptual difficulties also associated with dementia can mean that an over-stimulating environment makes it difficult to focus or concentrate. If possible, invite a reduced number of friends and family over for short periods of time and make sure that you have a quiet space for your loved one to occupy if things get a little too much.
If you are arranging a small gathering, perhaps create finger food such as sandwiches with their favourite filling, chopped up pieces of fruit or sausage rolls. Not only will bite-sized food encourage them to eat, but brightly-coloured food that’s easily accessible will help them if they struggle to use cutlery or distinguish food amongst a plate of similar looking items.
Each birthday is cause for a celebration, but milestone birthdays can be a chance to show your loved one just how special and valued they are, particularly if they’ve reached the amazing age of one hundred! The temptation may be to really spoil them and treat them to a gathering at a special restaurant, along with showering them with lots of gifts.
For those living with early-onset dementia, going somewhere new with lots of people may be a little too much. If you do want to take your loved one out as a treat, it may be worth visiting their favourite restaurant or pub where they are familiar with the food and staff rather than trying something new or extravagant.
Those with more advanced dementia may find it difficult to leave their home and struggle with more recent memories – they may not even be aware of how old they are. It’s most likely that they are living in the past, and in their mind are 30 years old instead of 90 years old. Imagine being told that you’re older than you think you are and that your partner is no longer here – it would be extremely upsetting and distressing, possibly causing frustration and aggression. It’s important to remember to live in their ‘reality’ and instead of reminding them of their milestone age, stick to generic birthday paraphernalia and language instead.
Selecting the right gift
We love to capture the joy of birthdays and instead of concentrating on the here and now, reminiscing on times passed could mean much more than a pair of socks or slippers (although very useful!). A Life Story Book is a great way to look back on some great times and even get to know your loved one a bit better. You could include anything from photos of family holidays to cards they received years ago, or maybe even write down the lyrics to some of their favourite songs from their teenage years that they can sing along to.
A memory photo board is also another lovely gift that offers you both a chance to recall the past. Perhaps they have some funny stories from when they were younger that you weren’t even aware of or pictures of their wedding day that you haven’t seen before; this collaborative process will help you get to know them more and also be a great aid for them to remember their fondest memories.
Our senses can sometimes be the key to unlocking past memories or experiences from years ago. A perfume or cologne that you used for the first time on holiday can evoke powerful memories of your time there when you smell the same scent years later. This phenomenon is due to the nerves that are used for our olfactory functions and are also linked to the area in your brain responsible for emotional memory.
If your loved one used to make freshly-baked bread, perhaps you could find a recipe for their favourite loaf and bake it with them. Or perhaps they loved planting hyacinths in their younger years, which are known for their beautiful fragrance. Buying them some bulbs and helping them to plant and nurture them could also be great for their coordination and something for you to do together.
If you or a loved one need any further support with dementia, you can call our dedicated customer care team who are all fully-trained in dealing with dementia and how it affects individuals and their families.