Celebrating a birthday for someone living with dementia

Our partners and leading Dementia Care Specialists for home care in the UK, Helping Hands, give their advice on how to celebrate without overwhelming loved ones.

With over 900,000 people in the UK already living with dementia, there are more than ever being diagnosed with the condition. When it comes to celebrating important birthdays, it can be a confusing and unsettling time.

It's not that they don't want to celebrate their birthday - it may be that they can't remember when their birthday is or what happens when it's someone's birthday. As well as being difficult for them, it may be upsetting for you too, particularly if it's a milestone occasion.

Here are our top tips on how to think about celebrating a birthday of a loved one with a dementia diagnosis.

Organising a Celebration

Living with dementia doesn't just affect memory function, it also affects physical and emotional functions. Someone that may have previously loved being the centre of attention and life and soul of the party, may now be anxious and uncomfortable around lots of people, and find it upsetting.

  • Feeling overwhelmed by lots of noise is quite common for someone living with dementia, as the condition affects hearing and the ability to distinguish between different voices in a conversation.
  • Having friends and family over for a barbeque or get-together may seem like a low-key celebration, but this could simply be too much for your loved one. If possible, invite a reduced number of friends and family over for short periods of time and make sure that you have a quiet space for your loved one to occupy if things get a little too much.
  • The visuoperceptual difficulties also associated with dementia can mean that an over-stimulating environment makes it difficult to focus or concentrate.

If you are arranging a small gathering, perhaps create finger food such as sandwiches with their favourite filling, chopped up pieces of fruit or sausage rolls. Not only will bite-sized food encourage them to eat, but brightly-coloured food that's easily accessible will help them if they struggle to use cutlery or distinguish food amongst a plate of similar looking items.

Milestone Birthdays

Birthdays are always cause for a celebration, but milestone birthdays can be a chance to show your loved one just how special and valued they are. The temptation may be to really spoil them and treat them to a gathering at a special restaurant, along with showering them with lots of gifts.

Even for those living with early-onset dementia, going somewhere new with lots of people may be too much. If you do want to take your loved one out as a treat, it may be better to visit their favourite restaurant or pub where they are familiar with the food and staff, rather than trying something new or extravagant.

Those with more advanced dementia may find it difficult to leave their home and struggle with more recent memories - they may not even be aware of how old they are. It's most likely that they are living in the past, and in their mind are 30 years old instead of 90. It's important to remember to live in their 'reality' and instead of reminding them of their milestone age, stick to generic birthday paraphernalia and language instead.

  • Imagine being told that you're older than you think you are and that your partner is no longer here - it would be extremely upsetting and distressing, possibly causing frustration and aggression.

Selecting the Right Gift

Instead of concentrating on the here and now, reminiscing on past times could mean much more than a pair of socks or slippers (although very useful!). A Life Story Book is a great way to look back on past happy times and even get to know your loved one a bit better. You could include anything from photos of family holidays to cards they received years ago, or maybe even write down the lyrics of their favourite songs from their teenage years that they can sing along to.

A memory photo board is also another lovely gift that offers you both a chance to recall the past. Perhaps they have some funny stories from when they were younger that you weren't even aware of, or pictures of their wedding day that you haven't seen before; this collaborative process will help you get to know them more and will also be a great aid for them to remember their fondest memories.

Our senses can sometimes be the key to unlocking past memories or experiences from years ago. A perfume or cologne that was used when younger can evoke powerful memories when you smell the same scent years later. This phenomenon is because the nerves used for our sense of smell are also linked to the area in your brain responsible for emotional memory.

If your loved one used to make freshly-baked bread, perhaps you could find a recipe for their favourite loaf and bake it with them. Or perhaps they loved planting hyacinths in their younger years, which are known for their beautiful fragrance. Buying them some bulbs and helping them to plant and nurture them could also be great for their coordination and something for you to do together.


Helping Hands, the leading Dementia Care Specialists for home care in the UK