At Thanksgiving dinner last week, the very wise woman sitting across from me said that her family had stopped giving gifts to each other for the holidays. “If I need something, I can get it for myself,” she said. “I don’t need more stuff, but I love spending time together.”
Isn’t that true for most of us? More stuff…is not so important, but time together…is very special!
Family members ask me for gift ideas for their loved ones living with dementia and here are my suggestions…
1. Gift of “being with” – if you are visiting a person living with dementia, be prepared to be mindful, to listen, to connect through both verbal and non-verbal communication, to be sensitive to what type of activity they are comfortable with.
Working in care facilities, I see out-of-town families swoop in with packages and boisterous greetings. They have busy holiday schedules, and everyone has set aside a specific time to come visit. In they all troop with their hugs and hellos, which can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t seen the family group for a while.
Consider one well-recognized member of the family entering first and spending some time alone to orient the person living with dementia to the holiday season and the family visit. Then other members can be introduced as the person is comfortable and relaxed.
Listen and take cues from the person living with dementia how comfortable they are. Each person entering can introduce themselves and their relationship. And children, who grow up so fast, can add their age – “Hi Auntie – I’m Caroline and I’m 16 years now! I live in Florida with my mom and dad, Mary and George.” Then wait for the acknowledgment of the information and time for it to soak in before the next family member adds their greeting.
2. Gift of focusing on retained abilities and skills – I often hear family members reminding each other of how great that person used to be…”She was the best cook!” “He was awarded the best salesman in his company!” “He was a great professor!”
While it can be nice to acknowledge a person’s past accomplishments, it can also leave people thinking that everything has been lost and presently the person is only “unable, incapable”.
There is always something to brag about and be sure to speak up about the person’s current abilities. “Linda is the best at helping in the kitchen –clean-up is easy with her help.” “Tom is a great dancer and when we have a party, he always makes it a lot of fun”. “When Bill smiles, everyone feels welcome.”
3. Gift of joy – Family members tell me they sometimes feel sad when they visit their loved one living with dementia. They feel that the person’s daily life is routine and there is not much to talk about.
I propose they share something that brings themselves joy, sharing that experience with the person they are visiting. Do you have a favorite song, did you go on a special trip recently, do you have a favorite food, do you love your dog?
It is likely that the person living with dementia will be able to participate in and sense your joy – if you bring a couple favorite photos from your trip to Italy, or if you bring a piece of your favorite pie or if you can bring your dog with you for a visit. If you are enthusiastic and joyful, you can share that experience with the person you are visiting.
4. Gift of sharing a meaningful experience together – what do you know that would be meaningful for the person you are visiting? Would a gardener enjoy a few fragrant flowers and time to discuss whether they had ever grown them in their garden? Would a world traveler enjoy a dinner in the local Italian restaurant with reminiscence about their travels to Italy? Would a dog lover enjoy a trip to the local animal shelter to donate some dog biscuits? Would a wine lover enjoy a glass of wine together?
If you are not sure what would be meaningful, consider in this busy world, the gift of your time.
“Tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Wishing everyone the best for this coming holiday season and I look forward to hearing from you in the new year.