Dementia-friendly decorating

I notice on social media that my friends have been eager to start decorating for the holidays – earlier than usual. And in my neighborhood, there has been no restraint – the icicled eaves, garlanded columns, candy cane staked gardens started appearing right after Halloween. You may be like me, primed and ready to get at it, now that it’s December. But if you are decorating for a loved one with dementia, it may be time to re-think some of your plans and ideas.

For a person with dementia, the visual stimulus of the holidays can be too much. Overstimulation can cause disorientation, confusion, and agitation…especially as the day wears on. Here are some decorating suggestions to help keep everyone’s spirits bright and calm throughout this holiday season.

  1. Use moderation with lights, and avoid flashy light displays. As dementia degrades a person’s visual skills light, color, shadow, and reflection are perceived differently than before and what once delighted the eyes can now weary or worry them. Pulsing or chasing lights and lights that produce a color sequence may cause sensory overload for a person with dementia, potentially causing hallucinations. By all means use light displays, choosing just a few key focal points around the house. Light trees, mantles, doorways, and windows on a steady, or solid, illumination setting to prevent overstimulation.
  2. Reduce reflective surfaces. People with dementia don’t compute reflections well, sometimes mistaking human reflections for strangers or misunderstanding the concept of a mirror image. When highly reflective decorations, including tinsel, catch light and movement in the room it may startle your loved one.
  3. Be mindful of shadows. When lighting Menorah candles, hold your loved one’s hand to help minimize any anxiety that could be triggered by the shadows of low light. When dining by candlelight, dim the overhead lights rather than turning them off completely, or use table or floor lamps to gently raise the light level and help disperse shadows.
  4. Olfactory senses can and should be exercised frequently. Aroma is processed in an area of the brain adjacent to our survival instincts. In fact, scent is one of the ways we detect threats around us. Conversely, the aromas of our happy memories revive the positive emotions associated with those memories. Imagine how you might incorporate the holiday smells that conjure happy memories for your loved one.
    • Garland, boughs, and wreaths are encouraged, for the earthy aromas of pine, spruce, magnolia, and cedar are grounding to our energy
    • Citrus aromas promote relaxation and reduce depression. Stud oranges with whole cloves, in random or organized patterns, and display them in strategic locations where everyone passes by throughout the day.
    • Baked goods (brownies, pies, cookies) tell us the delicious taste of butter, sugar, flower, chocolate, fruit, and spices are soon to visit our tongues. If anyone needs an excuse to bake more – you’re welcome.
    • All-day stews provide a savory avenue to satiate the senses. Dust of your slow cooker and start a pot of chili or soup to wrap your home in the herby smells of a simmering stock!
    • Essential oils can create a sensory safari. Peppermint, cinnamon, orange, lemon, pine, and floral scents can be diffused in any room. Cotton balls can be doused with essential oils and hidden in other decorations or behind lamps or vases to surprise and delight the senses. NOTE: Essential oils can damage wood, lacquer, and plastic surfaces so do not let oiled cotton balls directly touch any such surfaces.
  5. Compensate for the reduced visuals by incorporating music. In dementia, the part of the brain that processes rhythm remains strong for a very long time, so music provides a sensory experience triggering positive emotional and physiological responses. Stream holiday music in your loved one’s favorite genre throughout the day.

If you haven’t tried these ideas before, consider them for this holiday season. If you’ve already had success with these ideas, but never really thought about why they worked, perhaps now you know. Either way, enjoy your holiday decorating, and may it usher in a sense of calm, comfort, and celebration for you and all your loved ones.

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