I was raised on a diet of magic sleds and sugar plum fairies. So I have great reverence for the mysteries of winter. But a real, human chimney sweep has long since replaced Santa as the person most likely to land in my fireplace. I’m not a slave to Christmas customs, apart from my need for a real tree, but this time of year still brings a mystery that challenges my imagination. How has my mother managed to celebrate another birthday?
Today is her day. For years, her annual party was overshadowed by family visits that stole the winter spotlight. Now, when these rituals are less prominent, we can have a real party — one just for her. Dementia complicates the event but it doesn’t steal all her pleasure.
It’s nearly impossible to interpret Mom’s speech and ten times harder to know what sensations still surge through her body. Yet, for some reason, Mom has not forgotten what the words “birthday”‘ and “party” mean. She was very happy for my sister when she observed a birthday weeks ago. The mention of my November birthday also made Mom smile. Whenever there is any event resembling a party, Mom’s light goes on and stays lit. Sweets delight her, sparkly things make her smile, and music gets her clapping. How is it that a disease that wiped out her vocabulary and coordination permits her to feel these moments of joy?
During the past seven-years, we have observed a transformation as my mother transitioned from a high stress executive workplace to a cushioned chair with sturdy arms. Much of her old personality has been erased, but the process has been so gradual, it’s hard to believe we are looking at the same person. This change has been as mysterious as the slow growth of an infant who, one day, goes off to college.
We are very fortunate to have her with us for one more birthday. I think it’s most important to cherish her momentary happiness and turn away any thoughts of what she’s lost. Happy birthday, Mom. May your winter dreams be filled with sweet visions and enchanting delights!
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.