From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!1
This traditional Scottish prayer can well be applied to October celebrations when living with dementia. With Halloween decorating a phenomenon that increases every year, it is important to consider the impact of Jack O’Lanterns, skeletons, mummies, witches and vampires.
First remember that these expressions of the holiday are more numerous and vivid than they were in your loved one’s early life. Halloween spending has grown over the years.2 With less Halloween energy in your loved one’s past, the reminiscence value from Halloween décor will be minimal.
Not only will these images not enhance living with dementia, they easily can add to environmental stress. Whether it is a cobweb draped over a door or a talking witch, these decorations may in fact seem like real ghoulies and ghosties. The brain changes that occur with Alzheimer’s and related dementias include changes in vision and perception. Hallucinations and delusions may leave your loved one unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality3.
Flashbulb memory of a particularly frightening time in life can also make what you see as a neutral holiday image quite troubling to your loved one. An example, clowns once seen as fun became frightening after a clown killer in Stephen King’s movie It.4 The memory of fear, horror, terror was associated with the face of a clown.
Flashbulb memories are detailed and vivid memories of an occasion that is retained for a lifetime.5,6 An image or a sound can send a person back to the feelings of the memory. Back to things that go bump in the night.
As you prepare to decorate for Halloween, it would be best to choose decorations that are less likely to frighten. Rather than Jack O’Lanterns, why not pumpkins? Rather than cobwebs and witches, why not cider and candy corn? Have a Halloween that is positively memorable.
6El Haj, M., Gandolphe, M.C., Wawrziczny, E., & Antoine, P. (2016). Flashbulb memories of Paris attacks: Recall of these events and subjective reliving of these memories in a case with Alzheimer’s disease, Medicine (Baltimore), 95(46): e5448.