Oh the holidays – how we look forward to them with anticipated joy! And then reality hits when even the best laid plans don’t quite go as expected. Guests are late to dinner or don’t show up at all. The turkey is over cooked – under cooked. Your teen-aged children are finding “themselves.” And, the grandparents – well, they are changing as well.
As a provider of pastoral care to older adults and their families, I have counseled many families who have needed to relearn how to negotiate the holidays with loved ones who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. It’s no wonder that this time of year can be stressful, sometimes bringing more pain than joy, especially if you harbor the same expectations that you did in past years for parents, grandparents or great grandparents who are experiencing memory loss. In my experience, it is still possible, even in the midst of changing family dynamics, to create a meaningful and fulfilling holiday experience. It’s all about cultivating a new perspective.
First step to that adjustment—the gratitude practice. Keep in mind the adage, “It is not happy people who are grateful, but grateful people who are happy.” And while loss beckons our attention, try to refocus on what you have rather than what you’ve lost. Embrace your family just as they are.
Then let go of the stories from past celebrations. Remember when mom used to peel 50 potatoes for the latkes by hand; or what about the time Aunt Esther burnt the turkey so badly the neighbors called the fire department? Shelve those stories and think instead about the feelings associated with those stories and the fond memories of holidays gone by.
Fill the house with good smells, familiar music, warmth and hugs—feelings, rather than facts are the key. Those are the elements that will not only bring meaning to the current day, but will rekindle the kinds of memories that never seem to fade.
Avoid things that may confuse your loved-one who is struggling with memory loss. This is not the time to express your inner “foodie” by reinterpreting the family recipe for cranberry sauce. Stick to tastes, smells, sounds and rituals that feel familiar.
Get out of your mind and into your heart. With expectations recalibrated and energy refocused on good feelings, the holidays may just be better than ever. Moments are precious and learning to embrace the here and now for what it has to offer will go far to helping us celebrate life at any stage – during any season.