A special day for your mom is coming up and she’s deep in the land of dementia. You struggle internally about whether you should even go through the motions of celebrating since she won’t understand what you are doing. Will making a big deal of the day just confuse her more? Is it even worth going through this routine when knowing that she doesn’t understand what you’re celebrating nearly breaks your heart?
As a family caregiver who has gone through special-day rituals scores of times with several loved ones, I completely understand your struggle. Yet, even after many an internal struggle of my own, I will say, yes, celebrating these days is worth doing no matter how far into dementia land your mom may have traveled.
One important reason for celebrating is that while she may or may not know that you made an effort on her special day, you will know, and one day that will matter to you a great deal. The second important reason is that we don’t always know how much someone else understands. Yes, your mom may seem to be completely lost in another world, but people living with dementia may understand life on a level that we can’t fathom. Would you want to risk her thinking that you didn’t care? Of course not. So, yes. Celebrate. It’s worth the effort.
Two ground rules
People living with dementia still enjoy receiving gifts because they sense something is special for them, so wrap the gift. Then, help your mom unwrap it if she needs help, and likely she will. Do so in a joyful way, chatting as you do. You can say: “Let’s take a peek under the paper. Oh, it looks like a puzzle! I wonder what picture we’ll see once we complete this!” If she shows no interest, though, don’t push. It’s still OK.
If she finds something frightening, such as a stuffed animal that was intended to comfort, distract her and hide the gift. If she asks later about the gift, you can show it to her once more but watch her reaction. If she still seems frightened, just say: “At first this bear looked cute, but now that I look again, he’s kind of scary. Let’s move him out of here, OK?”
So what do you buy?
One of my best ideas, I thought, was giving my mom and mother-in-law, who lived in the same nursing home, corsages for special occasions. Yes, I’d also put flowers in their rooms, but the corsages were pinned to their shirts so that the flowers went where the moms went. When the moms were helped out to the living room, or wheeled down to the dining room, people would stop and say: “Oh, look at the flowers, Ruth! Aren’t they gorgeous?” or “Alice, this must be a special day for you! Can I smell your flowers?” You get the picture. Your mom gets lots of attention and positive reinforcement that reminds her that this day is special and it’s about her.
Whether your mom, mother-in-law, aunt or grandmother is at home or in a care facility, clothing can make a nice gift. A soft sweater if she is often cold, or a seasonal blouse or shirt can work. Make it something fun but practical so that it works with her current life.
Games, music, and other fun things:
PicLink is a reminiscence and storytelling tool. Be sure to play the game with her!
An easy-to-use remote that you can program for her. Only the necessary buttons are visible. The buttons are large enough for uncertain fingers and have arrows to help her understand their functions. Use it with her while you watch her favorite show.
Simple Music Player resembles a vintage radio. You can program Mom’s favorite music into the radio and she can operate it with its easy design.
BusyBee lap pad is ideal for later stages, when people need to “fiddle.” This lap pad gives fingers something to do so it reduces anxiety.
Create your own puzzle is a way for Mom to put together a puzzle that results in a family picture.
You’ll notice that many of these ideas are about sharing time. Your time is the biggest gift you can give your mom. Take her out to lunch if she would enjoy that. If she lives in a facility and finds going out stressful, eat lunch with her in the facility. Most care homes will be making a fuss about any holiday or special occasion possible so let them know if this is a birthday or family holiday that they don’t know about.
Celebrate with the facility if they do that. Most facilities have special ways to celebrate any occasion that they can think of and that includes birthdays. Rosewood, where my elderly loved ones all lived at one time or another, used to have monthly birthday dinners. I never missed one.
Bottom line: Go through the motions of celebrating your mom’s special day. You may be tired when you’ve finished. You may go home and cry, as I often did. On some level your efforts will be appreciated, but more importantly you will know that you did it. You celebrated love.
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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.