Making Adjustments: A Holiday Necessity
As November draws to a close, it looks like we are actually going to make it through 2020—no small feat as we consider the events of the year that has been. But of course, what remains is the hurdle of “The Holidays” and everything that brings, both positive and negative. On the positive side, we have our family gatherings—maybe somewhat smaller this year due to COVID—and all the happy memories these gatherings generate. The flip side is that those who are providing care to a loved one may struggle with their emotions and memories throughout the season.
Caregivers seem to hurt a little deeper around the Holidays, I think because the glaring reality is the family member with dementia has been robbed of so many happy memories from years gone by. What’s left is often a vacant look, staring glassy-eyed into empty space; this is very hard for the caregiver to take, particularly on a special holiday occasion. Personally, I always found Christmas to have the deeper sting because my grandparents’ wedding anniversary was December 25; but once things had digressed so that they needed me to be their caregiver, neither Grandma nor Grandpa ever seemed to realize the significance of that date again, even though I remembered year after year.
The pain we experience as caregivers, especially if there’s been a close relationship to the person being cared for, is sometimes hard for non-caregivers to understand. The emotional difficulty of watching someone we love slip away by inches is slow torment. We’re forced to observe what we cannot fix, and each time the Holidays roll around we’re compelled to acknowledge how far down they’ve gone, even since last year.
While it’s true we can’t alter the reality of the need for the caregiving role, it’s possible to make some slight adjustments in our thinking, and this can really help as we navigate the emotional challenges of the Holiday season.
Adjust Your Expectations
This was an especially helpful tactic for me. In the early days of caring for my grandparents, my expectations kept defaulting to “the way things had always been.” The problem was my expectations and my grandparents’ reality were lightyears apart. As I worked with my grandparents’ medical care specialists and my own counselor, I began to understand that I needed to meet them where they were—because their levels of dementia prevented them from meeting me in reality. Before I went in to see them, I would brace myself mentally, anticipating that they weren’t going to know it was the holiday. By doing so I was better able to handle the cloudy expressions on their faces as I offered my Holiday greetings. It still hurt, but being more prepared for it actually provided a little bit of emotional relief.
Safely Provide a Festive Environment
If your loved one is in a long-term care community, you might take them a few cookies on a Holiday-themed paper plate (not a weighty platter they would struggle to hold). If they’re in your home, you can serve meals on these paper plates throughout the season. This is a pleasant way to highlight the time of year, but it won’t embarrass them by putting them on the spot asking if they know what day it is. It’s also nice if you can have a present for them wrapped in beautiful paper and bows or a cheerful gift bag. They may need your help to open it—and that’s ok—but receiving a gift always makes people feel special and loved, and that’s true from our childhood all the way up into our golden years.
This is an important caregiving principle through the entire year, not just during the Holidays. If you are able to see your loved one in person (something COVID has made very challenging in 2020), look them in their eyes as you talk to them. Smile and nod your head as they speak; try to ask prompting questions. See if you can get them talking about a holiday from their childhood; this is sometimes easier to do than trying to get them to remember what happened last year or even this past week. In a dementia patient, the older memories are some of the last to “go” from their minds, so by asking them questions from many years ago you’re more likely to hit pay dirt. Letting them tell you a story—even if you’ve heard it hundreds of times before—can give them a sense of satisfaction, belonging and the feeling they are valued.
Changing how we approach our loved ones with dementia may allow us a break from the many difficult emotions that accompany the role of caregiver. If we can move toward our loved ones with an appreciation that we can still connect with them—as limited as dementia might render that connection—we can see them smile as we create our own new memories of special times, and that’s a win for everybody.