Covid-19 and dementia: celebrating the 2020 holidays in virtual style

Are you questioning how the holidays this year may affect you and the person you are caring for? Holidays are stressful on their own, but when you add caregiving and a pandemic to the mix, there are unprecedented stress levels. One way to reduce stress is to stay safe together. Virtual visits can keep you safe and socially connected while still enjoying the festivities.

Plan a virtual visit or virtual activity

Connecting through technology can be a great option to minimize contact while still engaging with friends and family members. Set up your virtual visit or activity by using a video online platform like Zoom or other alternatives. Use video to capture and digitally send special moments, such as children opening gifts or decorating a family holiday tree.

Update others before a video call

Before setting up a holiday video call, let friends and family members know ahead of time what changes to expect in the person. There may be noticeable and significant changes in the person’s abilities since last seeing or talking to them. Being aware and expecting to see and hear these changes can make it less stressful for everyone on the call.

If having a conversation with family or friends seems too difficult, it may be easier to write about the changes in a card, letter or even email. You may wish to include a description of the changes in memory, behaviour or communication and even include a picture if the person’s appearance has changed. Here is an example:

“I’m writing to let you know how things are going at our house. While we’re looking forward to the holidays, we thought it might be helpful if you understood our current situation in advance”.

Preparing  for your virtual visit

Choose the time of day when the person is at their best, and set a time limit for the virtual visit.

A large screen device (tablet, desk top or laptop) is preferred for the person with dementia, as smart phones may have more problems with viewing and sound. Ensure the host of the visit and the viewing audience are familiar with the basic  functions of the online video app like Zoom.

Play to the person’s strengths. Be prepared to talk about something the person knows and is familiar with. When reminiscing, the person can draw from their long term memory bank and are more likely to speak with confidence during the video chat. Avoid turning the conversation into a mental performance exercise with too much quizzing.

Having some structure to the call with an activity can especially help if the virtual family gathering is larger. Consider an activity such as a holiday sing along and pick the songs to sing. Have a quick and easy trivia game but limit the answers to 2 choices (e.g. What colour was Rudolph’s nose? Red or Blue?) Or present a slide show with old family photos of past holidays and share your screen with the final product.

It may be also be a good idea to rehearse what you are going to say before the call ends as saying goodbye may become emotional. For example, you can say: “Seeing you today has been the greatest part of my day and we will talk again soon.”

Today we Zoom!

Setting the stage for the video is important for the person with dementia. Try these set-up suggestions.

  • Natural light and direct light work best. Place lighting behind you as not to create shadows so the person can see properly and not be distracted by distorted figures.
  • Limit other visual distraction such as a busy background setting in the home. Keep it simple.
  • Position your family member to sit at eye level and the viewer to do the same.
  • Ensure glasses are worn and hearing aids are on if they wear these adaptive devices.
  • Eliminate any background noise (e.g. TV or radio) and minimize excessive movement during the video visit.
  • Be present, give your undivided attention, be reassuring and stay positive.
  • Be prepared to reschedule and try again if the person at last minute decides not to participate.

Communication tips

Before starting a conversation, you may need to tell the person your name and your relation to them, e.g., “Hi it’s me Brenda, your daughter. I am here to talk with you today Mom.” You may need to repeat this during the video chat.

Speak slowly and clearly. Be aware of your tone of voice and pitch of your voice.

Use simple words and phrases and pronounce your words clearly.

Allow time for the person to respond and process information, pauses are encouraged.

Simultaneous conversations can be challenging. As best you can, have one person talk at a time.

Other video activities

  • Plan a video call to cook or bake or simply talk about a special family recipe together.
  • Have a pre-recorded message and send a “video holiday card” that includes personalized messages.
  • Schedule a time to watch a favorite holiday movie together from separate homes. Text or video chat while you watch.
  • Have a holiday classic reading by the grandchildren or together(e.g. the popular Dr. Seuss “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”)
  • Watch a holiday concert together during a virtual visit. You can a go on YouTube and find several holiday concerts from the past 50 years.

The virtual visit has become a new holiday tradition that marks 2020. The virtual visit allows you to stay socially and emotionally connected to others while staying safe.

What kind of virtual visit are you planning this year?


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