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Help your elders celebrate the holidays

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

As people age, many of them lose enthusiasm about celebrating holidays. In the past, holidays often centered around children. Now, with families scattered across the country, many elders are alone. Even minimal decorating for holidays, "just for yourself," can seem like a lot of extra work. Why bother if no one else can enjoy it? For these reasons, many elders let the holidays pass, often feeling depressed and forgotten during the bulk of the hoopla, even if the actual day of celebration is shared with them. Caregivers, whether family help or agency staff, can help.

Many years ago, Joe, my elderly neighbor whom my kids and I "adopted," mentioned to me that he had an old, artificial Christmas tree in his attic. As I remember, this happened around the first Thanksgiving I spent as Joe's caregiver. I nudged him along enough in the discussion so that he grudgingly let my young children and I drag his tree from his attic to his living room and put it together for him. This was, mind you, the old "bottle brush" style tree, but by the time my kids and I had dug up ornaments and supplemented a few things, Joe had a festive Christmas tree in his home. And yes, he thoroughly enjoyed it. We put that tree up for him, and he enjoyed it through his last Christmas.

Each Elder Had Different Needs and Tastes

During the time I was caring for Joe, my childless aunt and uncle moved to be near my parents. We were their only family, and age was taking its unrelenting toll on their health. They rented a nice apartment and were able to fend for themselves for awhile. Then, my aunt died quite suddenly and my uncle was left alone. We, as a family, took care of my uncle, but after another stroke, he needed even more care, so we hired an in-home care agency for daytime hours.

Thankfully, this agency was ahead of the times with "consistent assignment," so that caregivers and care receivers could become bonded. Three wonderful women rotated care for my uncle. One of the "girls," as he called the women, was only college age. She was his favorite. This young woman really dug in during the holidays and helped make my uncle's apartment a real holiday home. This decorating had always been my aunt's job, and we knew he'd never decorate for himself. We could see that he got an extra boost from this festivity, even if he wouldn't admit it, so we were grateful to this wonderful agency caregiver.

By then, my own parents were having health problems. Dad had brain surgery that backfired and made a move to a nursing home the only safe place for him to live. Mom had always been very big on Christmas, and decorating was important to her, so I took on the decorating responsibility for her whole apartment, tree and all, plus Dad's room at the nursing home. Dad wasn't even aware of the season, most of the time, but it was still important to us all that his room be festive.

At the same time, my in-law's health was also declining, so I became their "decorator," as well. Um, yes, I remembered my own home, as I had two children who needed a nice Christmas in their own home. So, during this time, I was decorating four different places, to the tastes of the occupants. This made me incredibly grateful to the in-home caregiver my uncle had, as she spared me one more.

What If the Elder Doesn't Know the Difference?

Yes, this round of decorating, added to my already long list of duties, was often a "drag" on my own Christmas joy. At least it was until I completed my tasks. Once I saw the pleasure on the faces of my elders, however, my own joy returned. Often, even if I was tired, I'd be able to stop and enjoy the results of my labor through their eyes. I never once regretted taking the time to help these folks have a festive holiday by putting up ornaments from their past. These ornaments, whether on a tree or a shelf, would often bring up memories and encourage them to tell stories. These stories would fire up my own passion for the holiday. The fact that someone actually listened to their stories made added to their own joy, I'm sure.

Sometimes, as in Dad's case, they didn't really understand that their room was decorated and festive, or at least they didn't seem to. However, I couldn't imagine leaving Dad's room dull and ordinary, just because he couldn't totally "get" the meaning of the changes I'd made.

Even if I could make myself pass up the chance to enhance his environment for the holiday, with the attitude that he wouldn't know the difference, how did I really know if he understood? There were times when Dad would come out of his dementia world knew what was happening, if just for a few moments. Even if he didn't, how did I really know how much he understood? I didn't.

For me, and my sister who helped with this task for our parents, skipping the extra "work" of decorating Dad's room wasn't an option. She and I spruced up his room, year after year, whether he seemed aware or not.

Celebration is Part of Living

If possible, we should keep our elders engaged in life to whatever extent they can be included. That sometimes takes a little extra work on our part, or money, if we are hiring help for them, but we can't let them give up living while they are still alive. Celebrating holidays, whatever that holiday may be, is part of living. I believe in trying to keep people living with as much quality as they can, for the entire time they are alive. Sharing special days with our loved ones is a way of making these days count. As caregivers, we have a wonderful opportunity to give back in this way.