It’s that time of year, and we’re seeing lots of tips on how to handle the holidays once Alzheimer’s comes calling. For me, it can be boiled down to these three words: Have reasonable expectations.
One of the easiest – and most dangerous – traps to fall into is building the holiday up in your mind, and creating a Norman Rockwell-esque image that probably wouldn’t be realistic even in the best of times. Nine times out of ten, doing so is going to result in stinging disappointment. It took me a long time to learn this, but it finally happened in 2010.
We had moved my mom into a beautiful residential memory care home, and I was envisioning the most perfect Thanksgiving. In my mind’s eye, the table was set beautifully, the food was delicious, and everyone was smiling. But I didn’t just imagine it; I was determined to make it happen. Instead, the day went something like this:
* Making Lemonade Out of Lemons… or Margaritas Out of Tequila
Damn if I didn’t conjure up a glorious vision of mom having a great day and even helping me in the kitchen (I think in my vision, we were even wearing spiffy pumps with 2-inch heels and cute little gingham aprons trimmed in lace). Fantasyland. Big. Mistake.
Kitchen activities commenced at home last night, where I baked the pies and made our favorite cranberry sauce and salad. This morning, I did the candied sweet potatoes then loaded the car with all the prepared food plus fixin’s for mashed potatoes, corn, and stuffing. I had pre-ordered a fresh turkey and dropped it off at Eason House earlier in the week.
Reality Sets In
My fantasy began to crumble about seven-eighths of a second after I arrived at the house. When I went inside, it was very apparent that mom was having another “one of those days”. She was stony and silent – despondent. I quickly grabbed one of the pies and cut her a slice thinking I could turn things around.
Alas, she lit up at the sight of the pie and ate every single bite. Unfortunately, when it was gone she fell right back into her funk.
I was there for about seven hours, and aside from a few moments here or there, she was inconsolable. There were a few small stretches where she let me rub or back or head and hold her hand, but the vast majority of the day consisted of her pacing, screaming, sobbing, standing out in the rain, pulling her hair, and hitting. To put it mildly, it was awful.
There is nothing worse than seeing her that way and not being able to do a single thing for her. She doesn’t want to be touched, talked to, or comforted. And she is very good at letting us know it.
I’ve never experienced such a feeling of complete and utter helplessness.
On days like today, I know there are moments of clarity where she realizes things aren’t right and that just frustrates, angers, and scares her more. Based on her facial expressions and behavior, I can’t begin to fathom what’s going on in her mind, but whatever it is, it’s horrendous.
The Show Must Go On
I went ahead and cooked dinner, but all the while, my stomach was churning, my heart was breaking, and my own mind was going in a million directions.
Who is this woman?
What can I do to help?
Get me out of here.
What if I’m doomed to the same fate?
Why didn’t I bring a bottle of wine?
Is this *really* my mother?
Am I in the middle of a bad dream?
Will she let me hug her?
Can I convince her to taste this stuffing?
Should I try to talk to her or back off and give her space?
Why can’t ice cream fix everything??
When it was all said and done, Mom’s caregivers sat down to dinner with Jess and I. I’m not sure I even tasted my food; it all just landed in a heap in the pit of my stomach. Mom wouldn’t come to the table, but after we finished, I did coax her over with another piece of pie.
Next Year: Thanksgiving in Bora Bora?
Slowly, the rest of the ladies arrived home after having dinner with their families. The house was a bit chaotic with a lot of conversation and activity, which just adds to mom’s agitation. Eventually, everyone left and the house was once again quiet.
One of the ladies was hungry, so Susie fixed her a plate and she raved about how delicious the meal was. That, along with a text from Jess (“Thanks for a great meal!”) was the highlight of the day.
Quite honestly, I don’t care if I never cook another turkey in my life… celebrating Thanksgiving on a deserted island sounds like a spectacular plan, in fact.
(*Excerpt from post written November 25, 2010)
Well, as I recall, that night ended with a margarita (or two) and a vow to start a new Thanksgiving tradition which we did the following year.
Right up until the end of her life, I had remind myself to keep my expectations in check, but after that day, it became a little easier. It was all about realizing that the holidays would never be what they once were, but we could still have some incredible moments of joy.
Holidays & Alzheimer’s Families
The Alzheimer’s Caregiver: Tips for the Holidays
Grief and the Holidays: 10 Personal Tips for Grievers
Approaching the Holiday Season as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver
Grief Healing: Coping with the Holidays
8 Tips For a Great Holiday Season