The pain of caring for a loved one with dementia can transform families for better or worse. Sometimes siblings go to war over real estate or care decisions. Old wounds can fester and create even more family stress. But wise caregivers might find that holidays give us chances to forgive past grievances and welcome back lost sheep.
Anger between family members is not a 21st century invention. Countless medieval battles were fought to avenge family wounds. There is, however, something about the times we live in that produces many situations where children with painful histories distance themselves from parents or siblings. Some rifts — like cases of physical or sexual abuse — present clear and justifiable grounds for separation. But in a world where individual fulfillment is often valued over family unity, one person’s absence can leave parents or siblings bewildered about how to mend things.
Based on my own experience of growing up with parents who were angry with each other, I know how hard it can be to push bad memories aside and forge improved family relationships. But I am thankful that somewhere along the way, I managed to learn better negotiation skills and forgive some of the offenses that once fractured our family. This helped me find the courage to invite distant family members to step in and offer love to my mother when she got sick. Mom is so fragile. I think I’d be very selfish if I let any resentment of mine keep others from caring for her.
Reconciliations are hard even when you have all your wits about you. It can be harder, still, to mend fences when a dementia patient is involved. But holidays provide opportunities to let people know — in non-threatening ways — that the door is open for them to initiate a positive contact. A holiday card updating the absent relative offers them an opening to check in with the family if they are so inclined. If a visit is forthcoming, set the stage for a positive experience by planning in advance and setting boundaries. Make it clear that contact must be made in a calm and considerate way. If you’re caring for someone who has difficult mornings, schedule the visit for a time when they are more lucid. Remember to reserve judgement if a long absent relative doesn’t remember the past exactly the way you do. People experience pain and fear in different ways and they may not share your interpretation of family history. In cases where a returning child has “divorced” themselves from a parent who is now impaired, try not to judge their point of view, even if you disagree with it.
Dementia incites some of our most difficult emotions: regret, grief, repulsion, and fear. Family reunions are emotional events even in the best of times. But if you get the chance to bring someone back into the circle so they can clear up old pain or add compassion to your loved one’s life, you’re not just a caregiver, you’re a healer, too. Your willingness to help a wounded person can lift a tremendous weight from those who realize they still have something to offer. Second chances are a tremendous holiday gift.