Easter advice for families living with dementia

With 11 eggs on a traditional simnel or apostle cake in mind, the specialist dementia team at Care UK has come up with 11 ways to make the most of the holiday when you are caring for a loved one who has dementia.
Maizie Mears-Owen, Head of Dementia at Care UK.Maizie Mears-Owen, Head of Dementia at Care UK.
Maizie Mears-Owen, Head of Dementia at Care UK.

Easter is a very special time of year for many families; the chance to spend four days together is a rare treat for many, and for those who are caring for a loved one with dementia, a little advice and planning can turn a potentially stressful situation into a weekend of fun that also increase health and wellbeing.

As dementia develops it affects the senses, making it especially important for people living with the condition to have activities that use sights and sounds as well as smells and tastes to evoke happy memories as well as providing fun for all the family.

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Making a simnel cake together has the benefit of being tasty as well as tapping into memories and helping to maintain important life skills. Maizie Mears-Owen (pictured), Care UK’s head of dementia services, says that there is a great deal to be gained from this type of baking: “It is important, especially when dementia has become more advanced, to be mindful of the dangers of the oven, but there is a lot people can do to enjoy the experience, such as weighing, mixing and decorating the cake,” she explained. “Rolling the marzipan for the eggs is a very tactile experience and also helps to keep hands mobile.”

Eating hot cross buns together unlocks memories. Maizie said: “When our older generation were younger, the lack of artificial preservatives meant they would buy buns fresh from the shops. Try chatting to them about the differences as you tuck into a bun. Some people may have made their own at home with their mothers, and recall their family recipes. Also singing Easter songs like “One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns” can jog memories.”

With a late Easter this year, the hope is that the weather will be warm and dry enough for some outdoor fun and nature has a very powerful effect on the senses and the memory.

“Changes in seasons have been shown to bring back lots of memories and walks in the country are an easy way to tap into this memory-boosting,”Maizie advises. “Your local park or forest is a great place for walks to hear birds, and look at the buds returning to the trees and flowers like daffodils and bluebells. ”Maizie says that the weather does not need to be perfect to have lots of benefits. She said: “While we all like the feel of the sun on our back, a gentle breeze on our faces can be just as evocative. When you are walking, remember to talk about walks you have had together in the past; you may be surprised at the memories that come back.”

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For people who grew up in the countryside, farm open days and lambing events are a way of engaging memories and getting fresh air. Maizie said: “Working farm museums can be great fun for all the family, especially when their relative recognises the old equipment and can tell stories about what they used to do.”

Arts and crafts are great for family-friendly fun whatever the weather, especially when they can include a familiar theme. Blowing and painting eggs is a family favourite that older people may have done in their childhood and possibly with their own families. For those trying it for the first time, poke a hole at each end of the egg, use a toothpick or wire to make the hole larger and then use a drinking straw to blow out the egg’s contents.

Decorating Easter bonnets is a tried and tested favourite as it helps to boost creativity as well as helping to maintain dexterity. Across the country, in Care UK’s 112 homes, this is a very popular activity and activities coordinators collect ribbons, scarves, hats, and artificial birds and flowers throughout the year to ensure residents have a free rein with their creativity.

Go to church if you traditionally attend church, celebrate Passover at your synagogue or Hanuman Jayanti at your temple. Maizie said: “There are a number of advantages in keeping to past patterns as it keeps a feeling of normality and is very reassuring. Attending a service also brings a number of advantages. As well as seeing old friends, singing Easter hymns will bring back memories and research has shown that musical memories stay with people. Language skills can be affected as dementia progresses and often people who have difficulties with verbal communication can sing along or tap out a rhythm along to the beat.”

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A little preparation can avoid stress over the long weekend. Make a list of useful telephone numbers such as out-of-hours medical services, book repeat prescriptions or appointments and make sure your relative has packed medication or medical support aids if they are going to be away.

Easter egg hunts ensure that young and old can have fun together. If you have young children, older members of the family can have fun hiding the eggs for them to find. Alternatively many charities, church groups or the National Trust hold organised hunts that also give the health benefits of being out in the country.

For those who may not be able to go outside, making papier mache eggs can be fun. First, partially blow up a balloon and then layer the balloon with strips of newspaper soaked with a 50:50 mix of water and flour mixed thoroughly with a pinch of salt. Leave to dry thoroughly between layers. Make three or four layers and when dry, decorate. Care UK’s activities coordinators have found that cutting the eggs afterwards and filling them with a layer of tissue paper and chocolates makes a very nice Easter gift.

Family favourite films can be entertaining as well as calming and could be the perfect end to a day of activity. Easter films such as Ben Hur and the Greatest Story Ever Told, as well as classics such as Easter Parade, are always big hits. Maize said: “I have heard homes full of song as they have joined in with hits like Steppin’ Out with My Baby and A Couple of Swells - it is a joy to see.”

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Get your loved one to help preparing the Easter lunch, so they feel they have contributed to the day. But do dish up lunch for them as the impairments to eye-sight that dementia brings may make it hard for them to negotiate the serving dishes - don’t be offended if they do not eat a great deal; it is not your cooking, appetites often decline with age.

Enjoy the extra communication that these activities can create with your loved one and be ready to make the most of happy memories which are evoked. Carers should also plan some time out for themselves, as stretching themselves too far can cause health problems. Care UK offers a range of day centre and respite services and more information can be found on what is available in your area at www.careuk.com along with a free guide to fun, tried and tested activities called As Easy as ABC.

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