Christmas is a time for meeting up with loved ones not seen in a while and catching up on the changes in each other’s lives over the past year.
But for some families, it can also be the first time that the signs of dementia in an older relative become obvious, Britain’s national clinical director for dementia has told the BBC.
This is so much so the case, Professor Alistair Burns says, that calls to the Alzheimer’s Society typically rise every January, as families register their concerns about changes in a loved one.
“Dementia is something that happens slowly so it may slip by unnoticed in people we see regularly,” Burns says. “That’s why the Christmas visit to wider family and friends is an opportunity to spot the early warning signs.”
He urged families to take the time to consider whether a relative may need help now that they did not need previously, and even supplied a short checklist of warning signs to look out for over the Christmas period.
Well-known British broadcaster Fiona Phillips told the BBC that that was exactly the case with her own parents, both of whom developed dementia in their 50s.
Phillips, who’s an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society, told of arriving at the family home for Christmas one year to find her parents had forgotten to put up a Christmas tree, then gifted her with a soft children’s toy and her brother with a ladies’ sweater.
“We knew things weren’t right,” she says.
Phillips’ mother’s dementia worsened to the point that she required nursing home care by her late 60s, and her father developed Alzheimer’s soon after her mother’s hospitalisation.
The journalist has written openly about the guilt she feels over having not taken her mother in to her own home at the time.
“My mum wasn’t even old. But I still feel I discarded her. That will live with me to the end of my days,” she’s said.