When I was 10 years old, I learned that traditions will change, come to an end, or begin. They would change not because I was getting older or living in different cities, but because of events in life that can change our family. The Christmas of 1999 was the first Christmas after my grandfather’s stroke, and the first Christmas my grandma would be spending without Poppa’s help to prepare for the holidays. That year we started a tradition that would take place on the third weekend of Advent. I would go over to her house and help her decorate the Christmas tree. It started simple. We would decorate together, listen to Christmas music, and I would frequently spend the night. Through this, I experienced the changing of traditions and realized that the childhood Christmas I lived for would not always be recreated year after year, just as I knew and loved. That because of my grandfather’s stroke, things changed. Change we didn’t necessarily want, but where required to accept because of events that took place in our lives. We kept up this tree decorating tradition until my grandma’s last Christmas in her house in 2007.
As time passed I had to admit that my grandmother was getting older, but not just older, that she had Vascular Dementia. That first Christmas after her diagnosis in 2005, was when I started to help her with additional preparations. I began helping her wrap presents for family and friends, seal Christmas card envelopes, put up other decorations around the house, I took a larger role in baking cookies, and, once I had my driver’s license, I would take her Christmas shopping. Eventually, my grandma no longer actively placed ornaments on the tree but would watch, and we would talk as I hung each ornament on the tree, sometimes where she dictated one to go. Despite the sadness of my grandmother’s decline, the new traditions didn’t feel like a burden, but a gift. They became a way for me to first admit that she was getting older, had dementia, and was declining. This allowed me to cherish each moment with her, as well learning to see moments I spent with others in my life who I suddenly realized, would not always be around. It was a gift to learn that at the end of the day, it is not the exact placement of the decorations and the type of wrapping paper used or even the exact Mass time and place we attended (one I still struggle with) that make Christmas. It was recognizing at I am spending time with people who mean the world to me. I learned to see in the moment that these individuals, these family members, and friends are what enrich my life and this season. I have always been a thoughtful child, or shall I say aware child, but it was her diagnosis with dementia that deepened what I was seeing, causing me to fully admit what I didn’t want to be true and in doing so, allowed me to enjoy each moment instead of fearing its end.
The Christmas of 2008, after my grandma moved into a nursing home, was the first Christmas I didn’t decorate her tree, but as I had learned 9 years ago, it was the time spent with her that was the tradition, not the tree itself. So, every third weekend of Advent, I would go visit her bringing with me a plate of cookies. We would talk or sit in silence together and look at the decorations around the nursing home. She has now passed away and what was our tradition is now a memory. I am grateful for the gift to have recognized the role she played in my life in helping me to see the important role all of my grandparents, parents, my brother, and my great aunts and uncles play in my life.
As the preparations are made for our loved ones with dementia, remember the gifts of the moment, that despite the presence of dementia, we don’t have to allow traditions to fold and crumble, we simply need to alter. That the time you spend with these individuals this day, and all days, is treasured gold. No one knows if it would be a good day or a bad day, if they are well or ill, what they will remember or forget. Leave those worries of the day with God, and allow the gift of still being able to hug them, “Merry Christmas” be what you remember, what you look forward too, and what you cherish. Take pictures, journal about the time together and stories shared, set aside your differences with family and friends, and know that this time together is their gift to you.