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Halloween is “Spooky” Fun For Most, But Not for Those With Dementia

For most of us, the days and weeks leading up to Halloween are filled with carved pumpkins, cardboard cut-outs of witches and skeletons and sometimes even cupcakes with frosting spiders. It’s all in good fun and we laugh, take our grandkids out for Trick or Treat and steal a Snickers bar or two.

For someone with dementia, however, scary and fun do not necessarily go hand in hand. Masks of Trick-or-Treaters, fake cobwebs and wall decorations of ghosts and goblins can be seriously frightening. So, what starts off as a fun project to “decorate grandma’s house” can become a living nightmare as she struggles to make sense of frightening images and icons. And, yes, it’s hard to believe that they once drew little more than a chuckle.

Visitors to the door, yelling “Trick or treat!” can also be disorienting to someone challenged by dementia. The once systematic neural processing of people and images is no longer so, causing anxiety and fear. This can be exacerbated if the individual is also experiencing “sundown syndrome”, an anxiety provoked by the transition from daylight to darkness.

The Alzheimer’s Association identifies several key sources of anxiety for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Here are three that are of particular concern around Halloween:

  • Changes in environment
  • Misperceived threats
  • Fear and fatigue resulting from trying to make sense of a confusing world

You can imagine how Halloween can trigger these fears and create an emotional reaction that can result in heightened anxiety and fearfulness.

Does that mean you shouldn’t decorate mom’s house or acknowledge the holiday? If Halloween has always been an enjoyable time for your family, here are a few ideas to help keep the spirit of the season, while keeping mom or dad feeling safe and secure:

  • Put the emphasis on the fall season. Replace those ghosts and goblins with a cornucopia or basket of fall flowers and pinecones.
  • Instead of carving scary faces on pumpkins, consider painting attractive designs on your pumpkins. This has become quite popular in recent years and many crafts stores carry templates to give you ideas.
  • Better yet, keep those pumpkins intact and turn them into a festive table centerpiece, surrounded by a collection of fall leaves.
  • With all decorations, be sure to place them on a side table or bookcase, so that they can be enjoyed without being overpowered by them.
  • To avoid Halloween night doorbell rings and shouts, leave a basket of candy outside the front door for children Don’t forget to re-stock it from time to time!

By adjusting your festivities as suggested above, you can still include mom or dad on the celebration of fall and Halloween. By taking the time to minimize disruption and modify your holiday decorating, you will go a long way towards ensuring that your loved one with dementia continues to feel safe and secure. You and your family will be rewarded with a calmer, happier environment that is more relaxing and enjoyable for all.