We are thrilled to present a guest post by Martha Stettinius, the very talented writer of “Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir.“
The holidays can be a time of extra stress for family caregivers, especially if their loved one has dementia and is easily over-stimulated. My mother has advanced dementia from tiny strokes and Alzheimer’s disease, and I’ve been her caregiver for nearly 8 years, at home, in assisted living, a rehab center, a “memory care” facility, and a nursing home. Over the years I’ve learned to keep our time together around the holidays as simple as possible—for her enjoyment, and mine.
Like many adult children caring for an aging parent, I used to worry about making the holidays as perfect as possible. Expectations were high, and my mother and I would get on each other’s nerves. But as Mom’s dementia progressed into the middle stages of the disease, I found that I could relax. Four years ago, for example, on Christmas Day, I decided to wait and bring my mother home from her “memory care” facility for Christmas dinner with us not later in the day as we had always tried to do, but the day after. To my surprise, I felt no guilt. I knew that my mother would not remember what day it was, and she would enjoy our company just as much the next day. On Christmas, I got to lounge around the house in my pajamas with my husband and two children—a luxury. And that year I began to no longer worry about finding just the right gifts for her. My presents to her would be simple: three blouses in her favorite colors, a box of chocolates, and our company.
The day after Christmas, Mom sat in my living room and watched my son and daughter, ages 11 and 13, play their new video games. She gazed at the colored bulbs on our Frazier fir and petted her old miniature Schnauzer in her lap, the dog we took care of when Mom moved into assisted living. While my husband, Ben, prepared lunch, I sat in the chair next to Mom and we listened to the classical music CDs Ben gave me for Christmas. After lunch, Mom and I looked at photo albums; at that time she could still enjoy reading the captions. When I offered her our homemade, frosted Christmas cookies, shaped like a Santa and a wreath, I said, “These are the same kind of cookies you used to make with me each year, Mom, all the time I was growing up,” and she was content to believe me.
When I rose to take her home, Mom strolled across the room to her grandchildren, cupped each of their faces in turn in her palms, smiled up at them, these towering grandchildren, and illuminated their eyes with hers. “I love you,” she said.
Now, in 2012, Mom can no longer read, speak, walk, or eat solid food, but her spirit remains. She still shares her beautiful smile, and I enjoy spending time with her in her nursing home, talking to her, reading to her, and holding her hand. Despite the ravages of dementia, the peace I felt that Christmas continues to hold steady through our visits together, a precious gift.
Martha Stettinius is the author of the new book “Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir,” available at major online book retailers. An editor and writing instructor with a Masters in English Education from Columbia University, she serves as a volunteer representative for New York State for the National Family Caregivers Association. For more information about the book, please visit www.insidedementia.com. Order the book at Amazon.com