"I am so sad. I want to see my son." I found her sitting in her wheelchair crying out for her one most beloved person in the whole world. Her son had celebrated an early Thanksgiving with her two days before the official holiday. He had thought that would do for Mom. The problem is Mom was not remembering, and now, on Thanksgiving Day, she was seeing all the other residents at her assisted living place getting visits from their families. In that moment, all she could think and feel was, my son must not care about me, he does not even bother coming on that most important day of the year. She was remembering all the years before and the joyous festivities she had hosted for him and their family at her home. That was part of a past never to be had again... She was grieving, and the absence of her son was making it doubly hard.
As dementia caregivers with multiple family obligations, it may be hard reconciling the needs of our parent with that of our other family members. Maybe mom is living far away in an assisted living, and our wife and children are demanding our presence also during Thanksgiving and other holidays. What to do? Here are a few things for you to consider:
1. Celebrating ahead of time or late is not going to help. Your mom's brain cannot hang on to such short-term memories, and in her mind, it will be as if nothing happened.
2. Your mom's brain reacts to what it sees, hears, and feels in the present moment. If her environment tells her it is Thanksgiving today, and you are not there, it's gonna hurt big time.
3. With Alzheimer's and other dementia conditions where short-term memory is affected, the mind may not remember, but the heart will whenever significant emotions are triggered. In this case, your mom may be upset for some time after your no-show.
4. Unlike your mom, the rest of your family can handle not celebrating on the very day. Their brains can make the leap. "We are not celebrating Thanksgiving at home on the day, because Dad needs to be with Grandma."
5. Grandma's Alzheimer's calls for the whole family to explore the true meaning of love and compassion. Letting Dad go, or deciding to all go and spend the holiday at grandma's place may actually put all more in touch the true spirit of the holidays.
6. The reality may be that your family is not so united and up to the challenge. Your wife may not like your mom, or your kids may not care that much. You may find yourself split between conflicting loyalties and you may need to decide within your own heart on what's best.
7. If you live close by to your mom, you may be able to satisfy all by splitting the day between mom and the rest of the family, i.e., morning and lunch with mom, afternoon and dinner with the kids and wife.
8. Last, and most importantly, be aware of the guilt that is part of your journey as a dementia caregiver. And practice self-compassion. "I am doing the best I can given the circumstances."
Whichever your tradition, whether Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Diwali, Kwanzaa, or Eid-al-Fitr, may it be a joyous celebration with your loved one with dementia, and also your family.