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Halloween and Dementia: How to Celebrate Safely
While it’s true we decide our level of involvement around celebrations for almost any occasion, the traditions tied to Halloween aren’t as conventional or warm-hearted as the ones associated to other holidays. For example, for those who may not feel particularly attached to the Easter holidays, the sight of adorable Easter bunnies hardly poses any issue. Halloween, on the other hand, carries with it a set of traditions that involve scary activities and imagery. These can be triggering and prove distressing for people with dementia, who will easily experience anxiety and agitation more often than other people. Although Halloween and dementia might not seem to come hand in hand, we can find ways to overcome this.
Halloween’s playful spookiness sets it apart from any other holidays, resulting in more of a divide when it comes to people’s feelings around it. People tend to either love it or remain relatively indifferent. Which, in a way, makes it easier to decide just how much you’d like to be involved with the celebrations, and it’s only really a holiday if you want it to be.
How to Celebrate Safely
Halloween can be a great source of casual fun for our loved ones but it’s important to understand to what extent we can and want to engage with it. There are two sides to think about when considering your approach to Halloween time with your loved one if they have dementia-related symptoms.
What we can control
Seasonal holidays and celebrations carry us through life, bringing people together and therefore making it something to look forward to. This is why everyone feels the need to make it feel special, and why it’s almost impossible to miss it as it’s everywhere – on social media, television, decorations on the streets… All companies engage with seasonal events because it makes whatever they are promoting stand out more, since it can only happen once a year. Consequently, it’s everywhere we look, and therefore we may feel some sort of pressure to engage with it, whether that might be buying sweets or decorating the garden. Hence why the first point we want to address is that, despite that pressure, it’s completely okay not to engage with Halloween if it’s not meaningful to you or your loved one. So, the first step before planning anything is to think about 2 questions:
Is it important to them?
The first question you want to ask yourself is, is it important to them? Do they like Halloween? Was it a holiday they always cared about or enjoyed? If the answer is no, it’s important to realise that it’s okay not to celebrate it at all.
On the other hand, if you do think they might like to be involved with the Halloween celebrations to an extent, it’s worth exploring what aspects of it you could incorporate. Consider ones that wouldn’t be triggering or disruptive to them. For this, it can be useful to think of things you know they already enjoy and how you can adapt it to the theme. If they enjoy going for walks, for example, you could organise a day out pumpkin picking and later painting them at home. Alternatively, you can create fun collages out of autumn leaves you’ve collected on your walk back. If you know they like playing certain games such as bingo, you can make it Halloween themed and make it a Halloween Bingo afternoon. Or, if you know they find pleasure in baking or decorating, you could ice some Halloween-themed cookies, or decorate the living room together.
Is it important to you?
The second question to ask yourself is whether celebrating it is important to you. As the caregiver and the person who spends the most time with them, the selflessness often takes over. Most of the time, as the loved one, you tend to really focus on what would be overwhelming to them and forget what matters to you. However, it’s essential to remember your mental health is just as important. After all, juggling your own life, career, relationships and potentially family on top of caring for someone living with dementia is a big responsibility. Being kind to yourself and incorporating things that help your own mental health will ultimately make you happier and, consequently, a better caregiver.
If you always loved going all out for Halloween and filling your house with spooky decorations, you might now be having to adapt to a new situation because of your loved one. However, you don’t have to fully shut Halloween down. Instead, you can try and factor it in in a way that isn’t triggering for them. For example, if you usually carved scary faces on your pumpkins, you could still have your pumpkins about with more neutral designs on them. It’s all about finding a middle ground that fulfils your happiness and needs as well.
Once decided whether you want to be somewhat involved with Halloween celebrations or not, it’s all about figuring out to what degree you can actually engage with it. This not only depends on their personality and what they enjoy, but also on their individual condition. Things can affect them differently depending on their case, what type of dementia they live with or what stage of the illness they’re in. If they have a short attention span and you know they’ll be showing signs that they are tired quite quickly, it may be worth choosing activities that won’t last too long. If you know they generally tend to be more engaged in activities during a specific time of the day, you might want to plan around that. For example, to avoid the common symptoms of sundowning, try and planning activities in the morning or early afternoon.
What we might not necessarily be able to control
Regardless of whether we want to celebrate Halloween or not, as previously mentioned, we can’t avoid it being everywhere. We understand that there are certain aspects that can be too intrusive if we don’t try and block them out in advance.
You might want to think about your routine, and what locations you might need to avoid if they are intensely decorated, as they can differ too much from their usual look. It’s so important for people with dementia to be connected to reality and avoid potential triggers that could result in hallucinations. Depending on where you live, you’ll have to think about what factors will affect your loved one’s home and general environment and ask yourself questions about potential risks. For example, do children go trick-or-treating around their street every year? If it’s likely that people in scary costumes will be showing up at their door or ringing the bell at odd times, you might want to prevent this from happening. It can help to have a sign on your door, or to make sure your loved one stays on a side of the house where the bell won’t be heard. Is their home located on a busier street where there might be more activity during the Halloween period? Do their neighbours tend to decorate their homes with interactive decorations, or do they usually host Halloween parties that might affect the noise levels for your loved one? In this case, you might need to have conversations with them about it or plan alternative options around where they could stay during this time.
There isn’t a set of rules for what to do and what not to do at special times such as Halloween. However we’ve identified a few elements that could help you figure out the right level of engagement around the occasion. There’s internal controllable factors which depend on both of your personal preferences and capabilities, and external factors that are generally out of our control and will require you to lay the groundwork in advance.
In any case, preparation is key! And ultimately, as the loved one or caregiver, only you know their personality and situation well enough to decide how to approach these types of events best.
Caring for a loved one with dementia can often feel overwhelming, so t’s crucial to regularly check in with oneself and acknowledge that significant aspects of the situation remain within our control. Even those aspects that might seem beyond our influence can be somewhat managed through proactive planning, built upon established routines and responsibilities you are already familiar with.
However, should you continue to experience a lack of control, and a significant impact to your own well-being and mental health, it may be worth exploring alternative methods to support you. Holidays are meant to be a time to enjoy ourselves with our loved ones. And, while this may seem challenging when a loved one has dementia, there are ways to ensure both of you navigate the journey while maintaining a better quality of life.