Celebrating Special Occasions When a Loved One Has Dementia

When a senior has dementia, celebrating holidays, birthdays and other special occasions becomes increasingly complicated. As caregivers, should we help our loved ones maintain their long-standing traditions or just let these occasions pass by unnoticed?

A Dementia Caregiver’s Experience Preserving Special Occasions

Every family has their own favorite special occasions that they enjoy celebrating. Some may not be big into Halloween, Valentine’s Day or Independence Day, while others go all out celebrating these events as well as personal milestones like birthdays and anniversaries. But when dementia creeps into the picture, many families are left wondering how to handle these special days.

For my parents, flowers and cards were always essential, especially on Valentine’s Day and their wedding anniversary. Sadly, after a failed brain surgery left my father with dementia, it was obvious that Dad could no longer participate in these celebrations the way he used to. As my mom aged, she began experiencing some memory loss as well.

I knew that, if he could make the decision, Dad would want to give Mom flowers and a card to show her how loved she was. I also knew Mom would want to reciprocate. The only problem was that neither of them was mentally capable of picking out a greeting card or arranging a flower delivery. Even with my gentle guidance, Dad couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

So, I was faced with difficult questions that many other dementia caregivers have contemplated before. How do we celebrate special occasions when one or more of the family members involved aren’t mentally capable of participating? Do we pick up the slack and go through the motions to keep long-lasting traditions intact, or do we pretend the special day doesn’t exist and let it pass by unobserved?

My personal approach was to keep things as normal and upbeat as possible without putting any pressure on my parents to “get it right.” I’d buy Mom and Dad cards to exchange and order flowers from an understanding florist. Mom was still capable of signing cards at least, but after a few unsuccessful attempts at helping Dad sign his name, I finally realized that I had to do it for him.

At this point, both my parents were living in separate private rooms at the same nursing home. So, on the special day, I’d take Mom to Dad’s room and begin the festivities. Mom would give Dad his card, I’d show it to him, read it aloud and try to make a big fuss so he would feel important. Understanding that some sort of reaction was expected of him, he’d generally nod his head and try to smile. I’d put the card for Mom into his hand and then guide it to her. In this way, they’d exchange cards and sometimes gifts on holidays and other special occasions.

Even Little Celebrations Keep Hope and Joy Alive

During their last years, my parents’ celebrations would probably be considered fiascos if they were to be judged by traditional standards. Yet, I’ll never regret trying my best to recreate the special traditions my mom and dad created together throughout their marriage. Celebrations—no matter how small they are—give life some texture. If anyone needs something to make one day stand out from all the others, it’s those who are already coping with the indignities and tediousness that often come with aging.

If it hasn’t been a tradition for your family to celebrate these special days with your elders, this may be a good time to start. Even for romantic occasions like Valentine’s Day, there are cards and small gifts that are appropriate for adult children and grandchildren to present to their elders. Family participation may seem awkward, but it takes some pressure off the spousal connection so that as dementia progresses there’s more to the day than just focusing on the couple celebrating each other. Then, when the time comes that your help is needed with the festivities, your involvement won’t be considered strange because you’ve already laid some groundwork for it.

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Some people rightfully wonder what I thought I was accomplishing when I staged these celebrations at the nursing home for my parents. Was it possible that this charade I orchestrated brought more pain to them than simply pretending the special days didn’t exist? I will admit that I agonized over this possibility. After all, Dad couldn’t even keep track of what day it was in his final years. He would have never known that he missed an important milestone. Even with my assistance, it wasn’t clear whether he understood what we were celebrating most times. I felt powerless to guide my parents through the losses they had suffered. Yet, strangely, I found some gratification in the routine I developed. I felt, momentarily at least, as though I was doing all I could for them.

This may sound terrible, but sometimes we must remind ourselves that people with dementia are still alive. They may be capable of enjoying and understanding far more than we give them credit for. In my mind, honoring their years of love and marriage on these special days (even if some of the process seemed pointless at times) did serve a purpose. In the case of my parents, we knew what was in Dad’s heart. As painful as putting on little celebrations was, it would have been more upsetting for me to ignore these occasions. Family participation helped make these events as special as possible for my parents. Even though they may not have fully grasped what we were celebrating and why, the goal was to brighten their day and make them feel extra loved. At the very least, I believe I succeeded there.

Carrying on Traditions After a Spouse Has Died

The first Valentine’s Day, wedding anniversary, birthday or other special date after the death of a spouse is always painful. As an adult child, this can be both a heartbreaking and confusing time to navigate. Do you still try to “celebrate” your parents’ anniversary? Do you let your late parent’s birthday pass, or should you do something special in their honor? Ignoring these dates seems insensitive, but bringing attention to them also emphasizes the person’s absence. What to do?

Everyone grieves differently, but I think it’s still a good idea to give the surviving spouse something from the family. Bring flowers, come for a nice visit and perhaps have the grandchildren deliver handmade cards. Your loved one will likely be grieving and reflecting on their loss. This is normal. Let their response guide your actions when it comes to how much to do, but at least honor the day. This will help them feel supported and less alone.

We caregivers can’t take away our elders’ ailments or their grief. However, for their sake and ours, we can attempt to bring a little light into their lives. It often takes some trial and error and some creativity, but you’ll figure out what works. Remember that your best attempt counts as a success, even if you aren’t sure you approached it correctly. Sharing the love in your heart is what matters most.

Bruce Webb is a Senior Real Estate Specialist (SRES) and has an extensive network of senior-related referrals.

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