The Best Gift of All

Posted on December 02, 2015 by Anne Ellett

I invite you to read this holiday blog from a friend of mine, Pam Oldham, who writes about sharing gifts with her mother during the holiday season:


Many families will visit loved ones living with dementia this holiday season. Often, we make the mistake of trying to recreate family holiday celebrations of our youth. But over time, I’ve taken a new approach, thanks to lessons I’ve learned from my 87-year-old mother who lives in a long-term care facility far from my current residence.

Here are six lessons Mom taught me about holiday visits (plus a couple bonus lessons). I hope sharing them will help you and your family, too!

One really great present is all that’s needed. The family of my childhood celebrated Christmas and featured a massive stack of gifts under a tree. Carrying on that tradition is not longer appropriate for Mom. Too many gifts (and too many visitors) at once can be overwhelming to a person with dementia. Last year, I visited with Mom alone and gave her an interactive holiday ornament that came to life with lights and music at the touch of a button. Mom’s joy and wonderment was evident every time she pressed that button and the light and music show began. She played with the ornament every day during my week-long time with her.

Sing happy songs. Yes, sing and sing boldly. It doesn’t matter if you have a good voice or not. Holiday sing-alongs weren’t among my family’s traditions when I was a child, so I didn’t realize until recently how much Mom enjoys belting out holiday favorites. Sticking to songs with simple lyrics from old standards, like “Jingle Bells,” ensured Mom’s participation, to her great happiness. We began in the dining hall after dinner and continued singing all the way back to an activity room where a holiday event was about to begin for the enjoyment of residents. Hearing Mom’s laughter each time as we stumbled over lyrics warmed my heart.

“Selfies” aren’t just for the young. Mom first learned about smartphone cameras three years ago, and she loves our tradition of taking at least one official selfie during every visit. For our holiday pic, we don Santa hats that I bring and then we mug for the camera. As we check out the resulting images, we reminisce about past holidays and visits with Santa. I usually print the best image locally, frame it, and then give it to Mom before I leave for home.

Holiday lighting displays are still magical. Since Mom lives in a cold climate, it’s usually impractical to take her out to view neighborhood lighting displays by car. However, because her community is located in a residential neighborhood, displays can be viewed easily and warmly from inside the facility. We move our personal holiday party to an activity room with big windows facing decorated yards, turn out the room’s interior lighting, and then gaze with wonderment at all the beautiful lights outside.

It’s okay to be silly. Mom hates regimented exercise, but when I suggested that we take our song and dance routine to the halls of her facility, she eagerly agreed. I strapped some bells to her walker and we headed down the halls, singing holiday tunes and fancy stepping as went. Staffers and residents were delighted, and we had great fun. As an added bonus, the exercise invigorated Mom’s body and spirit at a time when she needed it most.

Your presence is the best gift of all. Visit regularly and often. During the holidays, a long-term facility can be a very lonely place for residents and staffers. Instead of planning one “big” celebration on a single visit, return several times during the holiday season for many smaller celebrations.

When I was a child, Mom taught me to be on lookout for people who need cheering up during the holiday season. Many long-term care residents don’t have any family members or visitors during the holidays. So, I always reserve time at the end of each visit with Mom to stop by open doors on my way out of the building. I greet each resident and wish him or her a happy holiday. Judging from their smiles and hand waving, this simple recognition brings them great joy.

Lastly, when you visit during the holidays, consider bringing some special snacks for staffers to share. They have sacrificed time with their own families to care for your loved one. It’s been my experience that cookies and veggie trays are especially appreciated.

Happy holidays!

Based in Austin, Texas, Pamela Oldham is a professional writer and care advocate for people living with dementia. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @pamelaoldham.

Posted in dementia, holiday visits, Pam Oldham, six lessons