by Wendy J. Meyeroff
Caring for a loved one with dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease (I’ll abbreviate the latter to AD as I proceed) is hard every day. There’s no doubt that holidays add stress, even heartbreak.
And to feel heartbreak on a day of hearts is undoubtedly one of the hardest. As someone who’s spent over 20 years helping caregivers find ways to make Valentine’s day particularly beautiful, I annually provide a way for both loved ones and professional caregivers to bring some happiness:
1. Gather others’ insights—Before you start, ask other family or friends about the loved one’s life that they remember. That way you can later ask, “Remember how cousin Renee made that boring [event] fun one year?” or “I never knew you crafted a crib for Uncle Bob’s first child. How did you learn woodworking?”
2. Glean even the trivial—I remember both my Mom and her older brother dismissing my tape recorder when I pulled it out at different events (obviously not funerals!) and started to interview them. “Oh we didn’t do much that’s unusual.” Uh-huh. Reassure them that what seems trivial to them could spark life in your loved one. After about an hour interviewing each one I had personal stories of childhood, marriage, careers, and even Uncle’s army service.
3. Ignite the brain’s visions—Smells can generate images and memories. It could be Grandma’s kitchen, or even their own. “Oh yes! I remember how you all loved my [stuffing], [apple pie], [calzone] [magic peanut tofu]”… well you get the idea. Or the scent is their favorite flower or a perfume. Whether you find a spray or incense with that scent or actually bring them food or scented candles, you can bring on some vision.
4. Long-distance ignition—What if you can’t provide those smells in person? Is there someone else who can bring that pie or those roses? Maybe your loved one’s friend is still mobile, or maybe their clergy person can be your collaborator. Other ideas: send a card spritzed with a scent and let a caregiver make sure it’s opened when you call. And maybe there’s a Skype option: you make a video call HOLDING that pie or flowers; sometimes even the visual plays a memory role.
5. Start asking direct questions—But be specific. Don’t just ask, “So tell me more,” or “What do you remember?” Ask things like, “Where did you learn to make this food?” or “What’s the best time you ever smelled roses?” and questions like those in step 1.
6. Above all, stay patient—Maybe their answers show confusion. Maybe they start talking about why they always liked Christmas Day, as if that’s the holiday being celebrated. It may hurt, but look on the joyful side. At least there are still memories to share. And who knows what you can unlock that was kept hidden for so long?
Happy Valentine’s Day!