How Halloween can affect someone with dementia

Halloween is a celebration that takes place across the world on October 31, which is the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It’s the beginning of a three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time of year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints, martyrs and the faithful departed.

It is believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain and Brythonic festival Calan Caeaf.

The celebration has become very commercial and these days Halloween activities include trick-or-treating, dressing up in scary costumes, carving pumpkins, playing pranks or games and telling scary stories.

Thanks to its origins, it is seen as one of the spookiest days of the year. However, for a person with dementia, Halloween can be very overwhelming and cause anxiety and fear.

People with dementia find it harder to distinguish between reality and fiction. People dressed in costumes can cause a real fear for them, as they may already struggle with facial recognition.

During moderate stages of dementia, the part of the brain that controls sensory processing begins to suffer damage, so fake graves, monsters, coffins and spooky lighting, can be misinterpreted as something they’re not and cause agitation.

What you can do to help a person or loved-one with dementia at Halloween:

  • Avoid putting up any decorations at home, especially ones that are particularly scary or make noise. If you do want to decorate for the season, go for displays of pumpkins and autumn leaves.
  • Avoid public places where decorations and costumes are out on display, if possible.
  • Keep an eye on what your family-member or friend with dementia is watching on TV – at Halloween there can be lots of scary films on, so it’s best to ensure they watch something that won’t give them a fright, or alternatively, pop on a box set or film for them to enjoy.
  • Try not to leave someone with dementia home alone on Halloween. Regular knocks on the door and any potential ‘tricks’ can be very frightening for them and they are at risk of trips or falls if they are regularly getting up to answer the door. If you can’t be with them for the entire night, at least try and stay until most trick or treaters have gone home. Alternatively, have them stay at your house or ask another relative, neighbour or friend to check on them.