For Christian-based homes, a Christmas tree is central and almost completely necessary for the holiday season.
Presents from loving family members and Santa Claus are placed at the base, and cherished family ornaments are hung with care on the branches.
When an older adult is diagnosed with dementia, keeping those Christmas traditions intact is often vital to their quality of life, even if activities have to be modified.
As part of our Christmas With Dementia series, this article will discuss the dangers and challenges Christmas trees pose for people with dementia and suggest some appropriate types of Christmas trees for them.
We will also share tips for safer lights and tree decorations and which trees and decorations to avoid.
What Dangers and Challenges Do Christmas Trees Cause for People with Dementia
For most passersby, Christmas trees don’t seem to present any threat or danger.
However, if you add a little bit of cognitive impairment into the mix, you can see how every trinket and light can pose some problems.
Here are just a few examples:
- Breakable ornaments shatter and cause injury
- Exposed wires pose a fire hazard
- An individual with dementia accidentally pulls the tree over on top of themselves
- A person with dementia is trying to eat ornaments or decorations that appear edible (fake Christmas cookies, foods, candy canes, etc.)
- A loved one unwinding the whole tree to fix a broken light and knocking all of the ornaments off
- Maintaining a real tree with regular water
- Flashing or blinking lights causing overstimulation, upsetting or scaring a person with dementia
- Cords and tree skirts cause tripping hazards
Suppose your loved one finds it extremely important to have a Christmas tree.
In that case, the trick is to find that sweet spot where the tree is still an enjoyable traditional piece while eliminating potential safety concerns.
Types of Christmas Trees for Dementia
These days, families and caregivers have a wide selection of trees.
When it comes to selecting a tree for someone with dementia, think about the following factors:
- Is this person living alone most of the time, or are they well supervised?
- Do they have a small or large living space?
- How progressed are their cognitive impairments?
- What are their behavioral reactions like? Do they get easily confused? Agitated? Upset?
- Do they try to put inedible objects in their mouth?
- How is their mobility? Do they have a history of falls?
- What preferences do they have for a Christmas tree?
After answering these questions and discussing some options, go through your Christmas tree options.
See which one fits your loved one’s preferences and life situation the best:
Artificial trees are convenient because there’s no water maintenance, and you can stuff them in a box and save it for next year.
However, investing in a cheap artificial tree exposes the skin to poky and scratchy metals that are unsafe during decorating. If you decide to go the synthetic tree route, get a nice one.
A live Christmas tree brings in that lovely pine smell that stays for the winter season. However, it does take some maintenance then many people with dementia may struggle with.
An arid tree that hasn’t been watered is a more significant fire hazard when wrapped up in a bunch of hot Christmas lights.
A small tabletop tree is convenient for people who live in small spaces and who may have a history of knocking over or pulling traditional trees down on top of themselves.
Tabletop trees are also straightforward to decorate.
However, family members must be careful about leaving small trees with unsupervised individuals with severe dementia since smaller ornaments present as a choking hazard and are often mistaken for food.
Pre-lit trees save family members the hassle of wrapping and unwrapping Christmas lights on the tree every year. Some pre-lit trees have wires infused into the branches, so there’s no way for your loved one to unravel or pull the wires off.
Unfortunately, suppose some lights go out on a tree like that. In that case, you may have to replace the whole tree, which can be expensive.
Some trees are already adorned with Christmas decorations, saving time and money. However, this takes away from some of the traditional joy people get during the holiday season.
Dressing the tree with homemade and meaningful decorations may be an essential factor during the Christmas season.
Read our separate guide to Christmas decorations for people with dementia here for more details.
Get a tree that has very few lights (if any) and very few decorations. This means that there are fewer potential hazards. It may take away from tradition, but in severe cases of dementia may keep an individual very safe.
Safer Lights and Tree Decorations for Dementia
There’s no magic on a Christmas tree without the lights.
So, if a loved one with dementia wants Christmas lights on their tree, then approach it in the safest manner possible by utilizing the following tips:
- Use LED lights as opposed to traditional incandescent lights. LED lights won’t get hot to the touch and present less risk of a fire hazard.
- Check all light strands for frays, breaks, broken bulbs, or exposed wires before stringing them on the tree.
- Be simple in your light decorating. Too many lights or lights that are too bright or constantly strobing may be disorienting and uncomfortable for an individual with dementia.
- Put the lights on a timer so that the lights will automatically go out during the night. That way, the tree won’t be lit all night, posing a possible fire hazard.
When it comes to tree decorations, there are hundreds upon hundreds to choose from. However, there may only be a select few that would be meaningful and safe for an individual with dementia.
Here are a few tips when selecting Christmas tree decorations:
- Avoid glass ornaments that shatter easily, which can cause injury.
- Avoid ornaments that look like food, like gingerbread cookies, candy canes, chocolates, etc.
- Select ornaments that have pictures of family members and friends.
- Find decorations that are plush, bouncy, or can take a beating.
Christmas Trees and Decorations to Avoid with Dementia
The number one tree that you should avoid is the aluminum tree combined with the color wheel.
Although very popular in the 60s and 70s (and a point of nostalgia for many elderly folks), these trees were a fire hazard then, and they are a fire hazard now.
In some cases, the color wheels would get stuck, and the underlying incandescent lightbulb would melt the film, exposing the tree to a serious fire hazard.
You must closely monitor aluminum trees, and it’s just too much to gamble when giving it to an individual with dementia.
A person with dementia may randomly start pulling the decorations off the tree for no real reason. If that’s the case, ensure the ornaments and decorations come off easily so they can’t pull the tree over on top of them.
If you have a loved one that tends to fiddle with the outlets, conceal the light plugs behind the tree or opt to have a tree without lights that year.
Infographic: Christmas Trees for Dementia
Summary and Final Recommendations
A Christmas tree may be a central, time-honored tradition for an individual with dementia.
Family members and friends can help them maintain their tree traditions by making slight modifications; that way, they can still enjoy the Christmas festivities in the safest manner possible.
We hope you found our guide to dementia friendly Christmas trees helpful! If so, we would appreciate a share on your favorite social media! Let us know in the comments below if you have any suggestions to add or tree experiences you would like to share!