The festive season over Christmas and New Year is generally a fun time for people to relax, engage in entertaining activities, and re-energise for the year ahead. There are numerous events to enjoy, places to go and things to do during the holidays. The objective is to cater for all age groups and choices. However, sometimes it leaves those who care for the intellectually-disabled with a conundrum as to how to help them engage in activities that will stimulate, educate and entertain them on a positive level.

The most important aspect is to create an understanding with regard to the celebrations, and to ensure that people are prepared to enjoy this time without feeling left out or confused. Always remain aware of the dangers of sensory overload, while embracing the fact that participating in the preparations is vital to feelings of belonging and contributing, as well as busyness and happiness.

Some suggestions

Make lists of things to do: Here is a sense of planning and order, and goal-setting. The intellectually-disabled person can contribute effectively to this list which can be consulted daily, and the various items ticked off as progress is made. This gives the individual a sense of involvement and responsibility, and achievement as each task is completed.

Decorations: Christmas decorations can provide endless entertainment. Choosing a tree and taking it home for decoration is very exciting. Buying the right decorations that sparkle and glitter is a serious task that adds endless anticipation. Equally absorbing is hanging various decorations around the home or care facility – a task that requires dexterity, concentration and artistic satisfaction.

Art: Drawing pictures to explain the Nativity can be very absorbing, and also provide a purposeful occupation. Putting up these completed pictures before Christmas is also uplifting, and truly enhances the self-esteem of the artists. Holiday time can be used for a host of artwork projects that are purely for pleasure, even to the making of decorations for the tree.

Family gatherings: Before family members gather with any individual who is intellectually disabled, they should be briefed on how to handle the perceptions and emotions of their member who may be overwhelmed by meeting their extended family in a group, some of whom they may not have seen for in a while. It’s therefore helpful to let the family know how to encourage their intellectually-disabled member. This is a good time to prepare topics for discussion that he or she enjoys, and to learn how to avoid topics that may bewilder the member or make them feel inferior.

Gifts: Like anybody else, the intellectually-disabled can enjoy shopping for the right gifts for people they care for. Helping them on a shopping trip can be the most fun experience for both the carer and the disabled individual. Selecting gifts, and composing thoughtful messages, can lead to hours of entertainment. The joy of giving and surprise is extremely satisfying for those who are able to be guided and assisted with their contributions.

And remember when buying gifts for the intellectually-disabled, it’s a good idea to get a grasp of what they would like for themselves. An intriguing idea is to get them involved in the unwitting selection of their own gifts, and you have really happy, engaged and excited people. Presenting them with these gifts on Christmas morning can be the best fun ever!

Putting on a play: Sometimes, instead of a gift, intellectually-disabled individuals may like to present a play or song and dance routine for the entertainment of others. Putting this together and practicing, and making costumes, can entertain the participants for days before and during the festive season.

Cooking the Christmas dinner: This is an important and focused activity that can truly engross the concentration. There is so much to prepare: roasting the turkey, preparing side dishes, mince pies, biscuits, chocolates, and puddings! Decorating the table provides endless fun, creativity and laughter – truly uplifting for all involved!

Making cards: Using old photographs or pictures from magazines, create colourful cards of all kinds – from gift tags, to place-name cards, to formal Christmas cards. There are hours of fun and entertainment in this kind of activity, and you’ll be saving money as well! These cards can even be given out in small gift packs to friends and family in return for donations.

Scrapbook albums: Create a scrapbook record of all the Christmas celebrations, and decorate it with scraps of material, buttons and labels. This is a precious record of a happy time and also reflects the contribution and value of the individual, a keepsake they can return to again and again.

Having a job to do: There are many things to do around the festive season, and giving responsibility and trust to an intellectually-disabled person shows that you have faith in them, and builds their sense of capability and self-esteem. Before decorating a room for Christmas, put them in charge of deciding where decorations should hang. Always praise their ingenuity and artistic insight, especially if they have made the decorations themselves. Give them supportive guidance, but do not direct the process, let it be theirs.

Designate someone to be the official photographer, be the meet-and-greet person, present distributor or organiser of games. Giving people the chance to control events in a secure environment helps immensely with confidence, learning, sense of self and achievement.

And finally, everything that everybody else enjoys: Don’t forget movies, beach walks, mountain hikes, and picnics. Games in the sun such as rounders, kite flying, treasure hunts, visiting an animal shelter, and taking gifts to the elderly in a retirement home. There are many activities that will be suitable, or adjustable to be suitable. Consider a new activity for each day through the holidays, and you will find you have more than enough ideas to entertain the intellectually-disabled through this festive time.   

The story of Sunfield Home

Twenty years ago, Chris and Lynne Bennett, parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome, pursued their dream of establishing a home for their daughter and other intellectually disabled young adults in the Western Cape. Together with a number of other parents, they founded the Sunfield Home in Wellington, providing a loving and nurturing environment for over 100 residents and day-care individuals of all ages.

Each individual is screened to evaluate their strengths and allocate activities according to their abilities. A protective workshop has been established where contract work is undertaken, as well as arts and crafts activities. An employment scheme has also been developed and as a result permanent and successful positions have been found within the surrounding wine and cheese industries.