No Ordinary Christmas

This year I will be having a ‘hot’ Christmas - not in a woolly jumper and roaring fire sense, but in terms of the South African sunshine.

It won’t be my first South African Christmas - the last time we transported ourselves to the southern hemisphere for the festive season it struck me as extremely odd that the shops still played ‘Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow’ and ‘White Christmas’ - All the dreaming in the world was never going to make that Christmas white!

This year, however, the suitcase packing is somewhat different. I have my Christmas hat, sun-dresses, shorts, t-shirts and bikinis, and gifts for our two-year-old to give to her daddy’s family. One particular person will be receiving more than most though, as we give the gift of dementia-friendly design.

Not exactly what we expected to be putting under the tree when we booked our flights many months ago, but then dementia is a bit like that, stealthily creeping up on families, affecting our nearest and dearest. I had hoped that after my experiences with my dad I wouldn’t be factoring dementia into my Christmas planning again for a very long time, and preferably never, but sadly that wasn’t to be.

If anyone knows that I’m not alone in feeling like that, it’s me. My whole working life since my dad passed away in April 2012 has been dedicated to offering advice and support to anyone affected by dementia. It seems very strange now to be a) taking my own advice and b) advising my in-laws in all things dementia. When it’s personal it takes the heart-wrenching element to a whole new level.

That said, I count myself very lucky. I have the knowledge that can, even across many miles, make a difference. In the UK, we are also blessed to have numerous world-leading experts and innovative enterprises that can help families who have a loved one living with dementia (I wrote about one such organisation for HuffPost’s ‘Tech For Good’ campaign last year). Things are infinitely better than when my dad was alive and products like dementia clocks weren’t even on my radar.

Unsurprisingly, given how many times I’ve recommended dementia clocks, they were one of the first things I considered when thinking about what to put into our suitcase. From the many different clocks we’ve opted for one with reminders, because as our loved one with dementia is diabetic there is a vital need for regular meals and medication.

We’ve also packed a dementia-friendly TV remote and the Unforgettable puzzles book, and of course I couldn’t make this trip without a life story resource (my blog on life story work is here), so we’ve purchased a personalised memory book and made printed copies of 90 old photos. We will be putting it all together and captioning it while we are in SA.

Captioning a memory book isn’t exactly a traditional Christmas activity, but then I suspect that very few things about Christmas will be traditional this year. Three weeks to cram in as much advice and support as possible isn’t going to be long enough, but then I’m not sure any amount of time would be enough, it is such a precious commodity and one you cannot wrap or pack.

If you are in our position and planning Christmas presents for a loved one who is living with dementia, then you may be wondering where on earth to start. Assuming you don’t have to fit everything you need into a suitcase that will pass British Airways regulations, I would be thinking about the huge potential of music and old films/TV series as reminiscence aids, and items to help with whatever aspects of daily life are difficult. Never underestimate the power that small modifications/products/technological solutions can have on preserving the person’s independence and enabling them to live as well as possible.

Of course with dementia nothing stands still, and as fast as we identify and address one need, another will doubtless arise, probably not long after we arrive back in the UK. Will we feel better leaving knowing we’ve at least tried to help? Maybe, we just wish we could do more. With 21st century travel the world may feel small, but sometimes it just isn’t small enough.