Mom lived for celebrations, for holidays and for birthdays! She loved any reason to celebrate, and these observances were steeped in traditions.
If you walked into my family’s home on the western side of Cincinnati during Christmas time, you would have encountered a festive and magical environment.
The Christmas tree held center stage, brimming with multi colored glass balls, assorted ornaments, lights, and tons of tinsel. A rustic Nativity set with stable animals and the missing baby Jesus, who didn’t appear on the scene until Christmas morning, was safely tucked under the tree. There were pine wreaths with big red bows adorning the doors, electric candles in the windows, big, multi colored outside lights framing the house, and of course the ever growing Dicken’s Christmas Village.
And if you journeyed along side of us during that season you would have experienced the long standing traditions which started with our annual trip to the Barker house in Oxford, Ohio where we would sip hot cocoa and spiced cider while purchasing wooden tree ornaments, a full day of cookie making, shopping, the Nutcracker, Christmas Eve dinner with the family, and midnight Mass at the Cathedral in town.
Mom was a party girl. She joyfully anticipated any and every type of celebration, but Christmas took the lead!
Dementia takes our short term memories first, and then slowly begins to pillage our intermediate memories, before, (and in mom’s case very close to the end of her life), it steals our most distant, or our very first memories. But the ability to experience joyful occasions still remain.
Mom still enjoyed Christmas, with all of its trappings and traditions up until moderate to late stage dementia, but we had to adjust our plans to accommodate her ever changing condition. While she once loved the hustle and bustle of all of the seasons activities, she became more easily agitated and confused when she experienced large crowds, bright lights, and loud noises. She stressed when she was away from her retirement community for long periods of time. Sometimes her unrest presented itself in outbursts, or pleads to go home, and often her eating habits changed when she was out of her normal routine. But the most noticeable indifference to the holidays was observed about a year before mom died. Thanksgiving, when most of mom’s family travelled to Georgia to see mom and celebrate the holiday, was also when we set up mom’s Christmas tree and decorated her room. She was usually excited to have everyone around, whether she remembered us or not, and an active participant in the tree trimming process, but that year was different. She watched from the sidelines, apathetic to the merrymaking surrounding her, sometimes slipping out of her room and joining the other residents in the living room. For the first time I began to sense a separation, an isolation from her family. The bright lights and loud laughter, which she had always been such a big part of, now overwhelmed her. Her comfort zone resided in the familiarity and quiet solitude of her home in the Memory Care Unit.
While we had to modify the details of our plans surrounding the holidays and celebrations after mom was diagnosed, we still continued on with the traditions.
Mom’s eyes still sparkled with excitement and wonder as we celebrated Christmas. She still loved the balloons, cake, ice cream and gifts that surrounded her’s and others birthdays. She may not have understood the true meaning of Mother’s Day, but she delighted in the attention that was paid to her, and her smile and laughter conveyed the true condition of her heart. These occasions aroused a joyful place in her soul. She was very much present, and happy during those moments, albeit behind an impaired brain that forget its function to remember, and converse in a conventional manner.
Hope in dementia lies in the ability to maintain a connection with our loved one. That line of communication has been altered, but it still remains. We connect through smiles, embraces, laughter, and actions of love. Mom will be spending this New Years Eve celebrating with her loved ones in heaven. No doubt there will be silly party hats, streamers, noisemakers, and midnight toasts with champagne!!!
Your loved one still remains! Tradition on!!
Happy New Year!