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Ruth Langsford's tips for caring for a family member with dementia at Christmas time

TV host Ruth Langsford knows that Christmas can be a challenging time of year when a member of the family has dementia. She talks to Liz Connor about what helped make it easier for her family

Personal experience: Ruth Langsford’s father Dennis had dementia
Personal experience: Ruth Langsford’s father Dennis had dementia
Ruth with Dad Dennis
Ruth with husband Eamonn Holmes. Inset: with Dad Dennis

By Liz Connor

For many, Christmas is one of the most magical times of the year. But for the 850,000 people in the UK with dementia and their families and carers, the festive period can present lots of challenges.

Decorating your home, moving furniture around to accommodate extra guests and breaking from the usual daily routine can all be a source of stress for those living with dementia, which can often bring feelings of guilt and sadness to those around them.

"For my family, Christmas changed dramatically during my dad's 13-year dementia journey," says TV presenter and wife of Eamonn Holmes, Ruth Langsford (59).

"The thing that got us through was learning to adjust and making sure we listened to what Dad needed, so we could all enjoy the day as much as possible," adds the Surrey-born host, a regular on shows like This Morning and Loose Women.

Langsford's father Dennis passed away in 2012 after living with Alzheimer's for over a decade. Through the years, she believes she's picked up some invaluable tips on how to make a loved one with dementia more comfortable at this time of year, which helps the whole family.

Here, she shares some of her tips...

1. Keep everyone involved

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"This is so important," says Langsford. "If your loved one has always done something in particular, like helping to cook or putting up the tree, try and find something that will help them to continue doing that, even if it's something small like peeling the potatoes or hanging a bauble on the tree.

"Feeling involved can make a huge difference and help your loved one feel included and part of the festivities."

2. Changes to routine can be confusing

"Try and keep things as 'normal' as usual, and plan ahead for any changes - asking for help from friends and neighbours where possible.

"Make sure you have enough prescription medication to last through the festive period too, as getting repeat prescriptions may be difficult during public holidays"

3. Put decorations up gradually

"Think about putting Christmas decorations up gradually over a few days, so it doesn't come as a big change to the person's usual setting."

4. Keep it simple and familiar

"All of the goings on at Christmas can be overwhelming, so keeping the day's activities low-key will help your loved one to relax. Having meals at regular times and in familiar surroundings will help as well.

"Keep your eyes and ears open over the festive season - you might notice if your loved one is struggling and they might need your help."

5. Christmas food and drink

"Food is such a huge part of Christmas, but dementia can make cooking and eating more difficult.

"If the person with dementia wants to continue cooking, find a way to keep them involved in the kitchen with someone else there to help.

"Keep an eye on your loved one with dementia to see if they seem tired or distressed throughout the day - this may mean that you may not be able to stick to your desired timings for the much awaited Christmas dinner, but try not to worry - food can always be heated up later."

6. Bring back favourite memories

"Whether it's a favourite song they used to enjoy or a classic Christmas film, find something fun you can take part in.

"Making a festive family photo album or memory box could be a nice way to spend time together."

7. Be flexible

"It's easy to get caught up in Christmas traditions, but your festive season might begin to look different as dementia progresses - ours certainly did.

"There was one Christmas when Dad got upset about how the dishwasher was loaded - he didn't usually go near the kitchen - so we had to adapt to the changes and work with him, so that he could do the things he wanted.

"It's important to embrace your loved one's world, and it's always worth having a plan 'B'. Be prepared to change your plans if something isn't working."

8. Find support where you can

"It's so important to access the support, whether that's from family, friends or organisations like Alzheimer's Society and to talk openly about dementia.

"When we found out about my dad, I persuaded Mum to tell the people in the village where they lived.

"It made such a difference because everybody knew him, and when he was behaving out of character people understood why.

"People are always a lot more helpful and understanding than you think."

Alzheimer's Society's Dementia Helpline and Dementia Talking Point online community are there to help at what can often be a difficult and lonely time for people affected by dementia. Help Alzheimer's Society continue to provide vital support to people affected by dementia this Christmas and all year-round by donating at alzheimers.org.uk.

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