The Gift of Christmas Presence

As dementia progresses, the ‘things’ we give our person are not as important as the gift our presence at Christmas and all year.

“My loved one has dementia. What can I give him/her for Christmas?”

Not too long ago, I sat at the bedside of a friend who was in the process of leaving this life after a long struggle with dementia. This lovely woman was such an inspiration to me. Though she struggled with memory and sensory problems, she smiled readily, sang often, and her words – though sometimes difficult to understand – were always filled with encouragement and joy. Her ability to talk had left her. Her health was failing, but she was still singing. Still full of joy.

Earlier in her dementia journey, she had told me stories about her childhood and the romance with her husband.  She had talked about her family and her hobbies.  And, sadly, she had lived in our memory care wing long enough that we had made our own memories together. But, now, when she kept her eyes closed and rarely responded, I could still get her to smile by re-telling the story of how she got her nickname.  And, she would still sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ with me. 

This is what it’s all about… making connections with your person and getting them to smile.  These are the gifts of Christmas presence and the gifts of every day.  As dementia progresses, the ‘things’ we give our person are not as important as the immaterial gifts – the things we do with them.

So, what can you give your person for Christmas?

Time and Love

Give them your smile, your hand, a hug… your acceptance.

Sing Christmas Carols with them.

Show them photos of the ‘good old days’ – either family photos or ‘google’ vintage photos on your e-tablet, laptop, or smartphone to share.


Give them back their stories of the past and make new memories together.  You just may find that YOU are the one who received a special Christmas gift.

And, you may find, as I have, that the person with dementia has given you unexpected gifts as well!  The gifts of laughter and music – of tender memories and of times of joy and perspective – the gift of shared human experience. And, really, isn’t that what life is all about?  Sharing our earthly journey with others?

But what if I really want to give my loved one something to keep?

Something pleasing to touch. This little Santa has four different textures to explore – His smooth face, his fluffy beard,a scratchy wool suit and a gingham sack full of stuffing.

If you really want to give them something tangible, try to engage their senses.

Look for something that is pleasing to touch – a soft sweater, a fluffy blanket, a warm cape.

Give them something to ‘fiddle’ with – a fidget blanket, a building toy, a stuffed dog, cat, or baby doll – something that reflects their past preferences.

Bring something to look at – a photo album, a memory box, a coffee-table book with photos of something that interested them in the past.

How about something fragrant – a favorite perfume or body lotion.

Something to taste – candy (please check with the nurses if in a facility), chocolate, favorite foods and drinks, Christmas treats.

Something to hear – music and music players, music box, clocks that chime times but can be turned down at night, jewelry that jingles!

If your special someone is in a nursing or personal care facility, please speak with nursing about what you have brought in so that it can be labeled.

Resources to check out!

Hesitant to interact with those with dementia? Please check out the 15 Tips for Visiting People with Memory Loss.

This  will take you to a Resource Library. Click on the ’15 Tips’ under ‘Additional Resources.’

The Importance of Giving Back

The very Definition of a Meaningful, Purposeful Activity

One of the things we like to do at the nursing home is to engage the residents  in projects meant to ‘give back’ to others.   We make gifts and edible treats for staff members by following the National Healthcare Observances weeks.

For instance, in May, the residents work on crafts and treats for the nurses. As we work together, we talk about the nurses and how much they help us.  We tell the residents how touched the nurses are when they receive the handmade gifts.  We wrap the gifts, usually in simple paper bags, and a few residents take turns delivering them.

This is a process that normally takes a week or two of one-hour segments.  It doesn’t all happen on the same day.   We may spend a couple of hours making the gift, another hour making the edible treat, another hour wrapping the gifts.

Meeting Sensory Needs

These kind of activities meet a number of needs for the residents.  Their sensory needs are met by the different types of materials used in making the gifts – what they look like, smell like, feel like.  Making food gifts is great sensory therapy! The scents of spices and flavorings, the act of mixing batter, or rolling out pie dough all bring back memories of times when they were caring for their families.

The happy, anticipatory chatter fulfill their auditory needs and their emotions are buoyed by the expectation of the happiness they will soon share.  As we work together,  we talk about how thrilled the nurses will be when they receive the gifts.  The residents often smile, anticipating the warm feelings they will soon be sharing with others.

But, what about the men?  Do they benefit?  Think of how many of these men stood on tippy-toes as children to reach the table and watch their mothers cooking or baking? Perhaps Mother handed him a taste or showed him how to roll the dough ‘just so.’  How many of these grown men are brought back to their grandmother’s kitchen by the scent of the spices and the simple act of watching others engaged in those activities?  Many times the men will join the fun and use that rolling pin or stir the batter.

It is more blessed to give than to receive….

The goal is to fill up on those good feelings and emotions to carry the participants through the day!  Studies have shown that those with dementia may not know what makes them joyful, but the feeling is there and remains for a period of time. (One study can be found here.) Do they remember making the gifts to give away? No. Not usually.  Do they feel good from giving the gifts? Absolutely!  The evidence is in the smiles and the hugs they pass on with the gifts…  and the hugs they receive from the recipients!

Meeting those three basic psychological needs

So why choose to make gifts and give them away as an activity?  This type of engagement is the very definition of a ‘meaningful’ or ‘purposeful’ pastime.  It answers the three basic psychological needs:

something to do (making the gift),

something to love ( thanking those who help us get along, day to day),

and something to hope for(the excitement of making someone’s day by surprising them with an unexpected gift).

Now, it’s your turn.

I encourage you to try this with your loved one.  Choose something that your loved one enjoys doing – baking, sewing, mixing, creating – and find a way for them to give their creations away.  Or, choose a charity to give to and help your loved one prepare the contribution.  For instance, help them create a basket for a basket party fundraiser.  Assist them in creating healthy dog treats for your local shelter.  As you work, talk about giving the items away and how much the gift will be appreciated.  Take your loved one with you to hand out the gift.  Step back and watch as your loved one shines in the glow of appreciation – making a meaningful connection with another person.