My father is ninety-four years old and has dementia. He lives in the personal care area of a nursing home where he benefits from the quiet environment, predictable schedule, and friendly staff. Chattering birds and a fluffy guinea pig reside in the lobby and add amusement and life in a place where people are slowing down. Daily activities and devotions led by the chaplain enrich Dad’s days. He receives healthy meals served to him at the same table, in the same seat, with the same companions each day. He is content.
Christmas 2015 was special. My sister had planned a meal at a nearby kid-friendly restaurant so that family members of four generations could gather at the table. Dad was dressed nicely as I spotted him slowly crossing the parking lot in his usual cautious way. He was fidgeting with his wallet when I reached him, which he found to be empty. I quickly gave him a few bills, believing he would feel good about that. I think he did. We found a nice long table in a quiet corner. The ambience was festive and the food tasted yummy.
An unexpected challenge arose when Dad began asking about our mother. He asked repeatedly “Where is Mother?” and eventually turned to me between bites of pecan pie and apple crisp to ask “Is she dead?” Indeed, our mother, his dear wife of sixty-nine years, died five months ago.
We had been advised to not talk with Dad about her passing. It made sense, since we could see that he would probably not progress through the grieving process to a state of healing. The news of her death would be a surprise each time. In the past months, we had all tried to gently skirt around Dad’s inquiries. There were a few times when I thought he may have grasped the reality and wanted to protect me from knowing our mother was gone. Dad had invented reasonable explanations for her absence. “She’s on a retreat and will return soon.” ”She’s attending a meeting.” Occasionally he asked if I had seen her. I told him he will be the first to know when I see her.
Somehow Christmas Day was different from usual visits. The family gathering made us all very aware of Mother’s absence. Leaning closer and looking into his sweet eyes, I had to be honest and say “Yes, Mother is dead. She’s with Jesus now but we can feel her presence in our hearts. She’s still with us.” He seemed to understand as I answered his repeated questions. It seemed right to simply be honest on this day of celebrating Jesus’ birth. Indeed, the image of our mother with Jesus was beautiful and comforting.
Amidst the sad moments at our Christmas table, there were the joys of smiles and laughter, antics by the youngest children, heartfelt conversation, and a hobby horse direct from Santa’s sleigh. Dad ate a good meal and even had two desserts. By the next morning he had forgotten all about Christmas. Breakfast time found him at his usual table, in his seat, enjoying coffee with his companions. The disease that causes his forgetfulness is also a blessing, and we are grateful!
Author’s note – I share this family story in the hopes that some readers will identify with the situation and be touched, others will become curious about dementia and seek information, and many will advocate for increased research so that brain health will one day keep pace with body health. I welcome your comments.