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Bringing Christmas Magic to Elderly Loved Ones

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In some ways, I don’t feel qualified to discuss some of the topics I write about. But maybe that fact can help someone else relate, and maybe something I might say will resonate and be helpful to some.

The Holidays are a very stressful time of year for most people. There are those who feel excited and are overflowing with joy this time of year. Then there are others who suffer from seasonal depression through the winter months. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. I used to love Christmas and get caught up in the joy of the season and everyone’s contagious happiness would reach me.

However, on December of 2012, my Mother passed away. The same evening, earlier we were decorating our tree at home with my family. I wasn’t there with her when she passed late that night. I had just taken her a small but beautiful Christmas tree earlier that day, in the nursing home where she had only resided for 2 days after release from a prolonged stay in the hospital. When she saw that tree, she gave me her best excited face with big eyes and mouthed, “It’s beautiful.” It was the same excitement that I would always feel as a kid, knowing that she loved something I did for her when she would give me that face, her eyes big. She couldn’t speak, you see. But it didn’t stop me from talking to her or asking questions and including her in the conversation.

Ever since, I guess you could say I haven’t gotten into the Christmas spirit too much. Except for maybe the last week or so leading up to Christmas because I still tend to get caught up in the excitement and the giving and want to show my love for my family and friends. So, I end up spending way too much money, like we all do.

When I was growing up, we never had a lot of money, but I do have a lot of happy memories. The reason for this is because it wasn’t so much about “stuff”. OK, part of it was about stuff; my brother and I always had gifts. But what I remember the most is that I usually made handmade gifts for my Mom as a kid, and she would act like they were the most beautiful things ever, even though they weren’t really and I was embarrassed because it was the best I could do.

But it wasn’t really about “stuff”. Not when all you have left are the memories. I also remember when my Dad would come home from work on Christmas Eve and I asked him “Guess what today is!” And he would pretend he didn’t know, and it would be fun.

And of course, I remember in elementary school, every kid always received a gift, to make sure everyone got something, because not all kids’ families were able to buy gifts. And each one of us received a brown paper sack, tied with red or green yarn, containing an orange, an apple, some candy canes, and pecans. And it was magical. It was something we could always count on every year of elementary school, without fail.

My husband’s family never had much money either. But I can tell you that I know for a certainty they had happiness, and they had a Christmas. His Mother would always go out of her way to make several different varieties of the same dish to suit the finicky tastes of the kids and grandkids. I’ve seen her do it for almost 20 years. Some with onions, some without, some without this or that. There may have been 3 different potato salads, and I know there were 2 different cornbread dressings. And there were her famous Noodles, which are more chunky and hearty and could be considered Turkey and Dumplings rather than what we all called her Noodles. No one else has been able to master those the way she made them, although we have all tried. (Not to brag, but mine come pretty close.) They took her half a day or an evening to make; she rolled them all by hand with a rolling pin. And in her later years, they got harder and harder to make, until she needed help doing them because it caused her back too much pain. She tried even when she didn’t feel like it.

When we are young, or when our parents are still able-bodied and in good health, they make Christmas for us. They weave the magic, they conjure the visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. They manifest it from thin air, seemingly. The smell of food baking, Christmas music playing on the radio in the kitchen, Mom humming to herself as she crafter her own brand of kitchen magic. The smell of an orange decorated with cloves, the lights, the tinsel on the tree, the chill in the house as loved ones come in from the cold into the house which is bright and cheery in comparison with the early darkness of a winter evening. It feels like anything is possible, and the world is really a good place after all. Even if our parents couldn’t make all our wishes come true, we truly had it all.

This is all magic. Christmas magic.

And when our loved ones are older, or not in good health, or in the process of forgetting? Then it is up to us to make the Christmas magic for them. They can no longer make it for us. They can’t bring it to us. They may not even realize it is Christmas.

So, to someone who is bedridden, they feel like they are going to miss out on everything because all they have to look at is the room they are in and maybe a window. So, you are their Christmas magic. You’re the one who comes in from the cold outside and brings something cheerful to their world of 4 walls and a TV. You bring the cookies you made, even though they may be from a frozen roll of pre-made dough from the grocery store. You bring the orange decorated with cloves to hang in their room and make their world smell magical. Like anything is possible, there is hope and the world is a good place after all. Sit and watch some Christmas movies with your Mom or Dad. Talk about the old times, like that year you were such a brat and wanted that Barbie or that computer. Or the time Dad took you sledding, pulling you behind the tractor in the field. And how mad Mom was when you came in all wet and messed up her floor she just cleaned. Bring back the magic with memories. You can’t go back in time, but you can talk about it and make the magic happen again.

Show them you would rather be right there with them more than any other place in the world right then. And don’t behave as though you have other more important things to do, or celebrations and plans that don’t include them. At least, don’t talk about it. It will make them feel excluded from something they’re not able t be a part of. Let your other obligations and worries go. This is my sage advice to you. You will thank yourself later.

If your parent or grandparent is in a nursing home, spend the day with them on Christmas. Forego your other plans and have your holiday dinner there. There are lots of families that do this, and there are even some residents there who probably won’t have any family come visit them for Christmas, so you can stand in for their family as proxy. You would be amazed how much they would appreciate a small gesture of kindness and generosity of nothing more than your time.

When my Mom was still living in her house, after Dad passed, my brother was her sole caregiver. She was bedridden, but he could manage to get her in the wheelchair on some days to take her to the living room or outside for a little while. I remember one year she wanted the Christmas tree put up. Even though she couldn’t participate in decorating it, and he had to do it all himself and bring her into the living room to see it when it was finished. It made Christmas magical for her. No one was there to see it most of the time but him, but just knowing it was up and it was in there in the living room was enough for her.

We are so used to having someone else make Christmas magic for us, so we can enjoy it. But we don’t think about the sacrifices sometimes that our elders had to make or the effort they put into it for us. And now it is our turn. But it is so worth it, to see the smile on our loved one’s face. To see a little bit of joy in their eyes, when otherwise the atmosphere is gloomy. There’s your Christmas magic too. In making them happy, making the Christmas magic for them.

What if, some of you might wonder, your loved one can no longer remember, and may not know it is Christmas? You can still bring joy to them. They don’t have to remember, and they may be living in the moment, and not recall anything from the past 5 minutes. But for each minute you are there, you bring the magic. By just being there. Talking to them, relating to them on their level. Say, “Guess what today is?” And then once you tell them it is Christmas eve, the surprise will be genuine, and their face will light up. I can almost guarantee it. It’s a role-reversal, and it may be hard at first for you. It’s OK, do it anyway.

In February of this year, when we were caring for my husband’s Mother in our home, I would go through the streaming apps on the TV to find a movie she might want to watch while I worked. She saw a Christmas movie as I was scrolling, and her face lit up. She wanted to watch it, so we did. She was confused and thought it was Christmastime. But that’s OK. It’s still Christmas magic and brings joy to someone, no matter that it isn’t really Christmas. We thought that this might be confusing, however, and were worried about trying to help her orient herself in the correct time and place. But is there really ever a time and place to not bring a little Christmas magic into someone’s heart? It did not end up being a problem at all.

When our parents or grandparents are elderly and can no longer do the things they used to or give the things they used to be able to, they may also feel guilty that they can’t participate. Make them feel like they are participating in some small way. Be creative, ask for something small, like “Tell me how you used to make your noodles.” “Tell me about what Grandma used to do when you were a kid for Christmas.” Everyone likes to talk about their Mom, so ask. Even if you already know, pretend you don’t. And pretend you are surprised and are hearing their stories for the very first time.

Everyone wants to be included, to be recognized and not just ignored as if they have outlived their usefulness or like people assume they don’t understand anything anymore. Everyone wants to feel needed.

This story was meant to also tell you how to practice self-care while caring for others during the Holidays. But the self-care is in the way it makes you feel to give your time and effort to someone who needs it more than you do. The way it will make you feel is beyond any self-care I can recommend. It’s no longer all about you; it’s all about them now.

Originally published December 2019 Witching Hour Magazine

Copyright Sherry Scott 2019



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