This Valentine’s Day, millions of spouses will be masking their pain as they struggle to celebrate a day dedicated to love. Their husband or wife who has dementia either doesn’t understand what the day is about or, worse yet, doesn’t recognize them for who they are.
In a previous post I wrote about my own pain as I, the family caregiver, helped my parents go through the motions of celebrating special days. They were both in the same nursing home. The situation was such that Dad’s surgically caused dementia prevented him from understanding what was happening as I’d help him present Mom with her card and flowers. Mom was able to reciprocate, however within a few hours she’d have forgotten that the exchange had ever happened.
I’d gamely go through these sad pantomimes, helping my parents celebrate days that had always been important to them. Then, finished with my visit, I’d go home and cry.
My thoughts today are with spouses who have Alzheimer’s at such a stage that they can no longer remember their husband or wife. I’ve had some broken hearted spouses ask me if it’s worth the pain of going through the motions. If it’s worth the pain of buying just the right card for a person who doesn’t understand what the card is, let alone recognize the presenter. My answer to them is yes. It’s worth it.
Celebrating the love that has defined your relationship for years is important. Buying a card, reading the message to your spouse and putting the card in a prominent place in his or her room reminds the world - and most of all you - that this relationship still matters.
You may go home from the nursing home where your spouse lives and cry from the loneliness that resides in your heart. Or, if your spouse is still home, you may continue throughout the day in the vein of celebration even though, realistically, you are celebrating alone. Still, think of the alternative.
If you simply skipped acknowledging the day since your spouse wouldn’t know the difference, how would you feel tomorrow? Next week? After your beloved dies?
Yes, it’s agonizing not to have your expression of love acknowledged. But the love is still there. The disease has simply removed your spouse’s ability to communicate that love.
And you never know. Sometimes when you least expect a miracle, one happens. A fleeting moment of clarity could occur when your spouse does know who you are.
Regardless of your spouse’s lack of response, give your beloved a Valentine just as you would if the disease hadn’t robbed him or her of the ability to join you in this celebration. Communicate however you can. Hold your loved one’s hand. Look into those treasured eyes. Smile and say “I love you.”
If, by some miracle, you receive a response it will be a moment you’ll never forget. If you don’t, it’s okay. On some level your spouse knows how you feel and is grateful that you honored this day of 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.