The Holidays in Dementialand

I don’t usually publish a blog post on Thursdays. This is a special Thanksgiving version of Welcome to Dementialand. 

You are probably expecting me to rattle off a list of what I am thankful for, but I’m not going in that direction. I’m not going to prompt you to be grateful either.

This post is for all of you who woke up this morning and thought, “Uh. It’s Thanksgiving. God help me survive this day,” or something along those lines. Maybe you had a moment of realization that the holidays are upon us, and it wasn’t exactly a joyous realization. This is for all of you that aren’t all that excited about Thanksgiving but will smile all day–because it’s what you do.

My blog focuses on Alzheimer’s and related dementias, so it makes sense to start there. Maybe you have loved one with dementia who used to play a large role in your holiday routine. Your grandpa used to carve the turkey but now he has dementia and doesn’t remember how to use a knife. Maybe today you’ll see that your mom can no longer follow a recipe, and you’ll have to choke down something that lacks several key ingredients. Perhaps today involves a nursing home for you. Perhaps you will wish someone you love a happy Thanksgiving, and they will not only have no idea that it’s Thanksgiving but also have no clue who you are. The holidays can hurt. And it’s understandable that you are not excited.

This is not just about dementia though. Lots of us have love-hate bittersweet relationships with the holidays.

People who have lost a loved one. I originally wrote “people who have lost a loved one recently” but I took out the word recently. You don’t get a certain limited number of bad holidays after someone dies. The holidays don’t return to “normal” at a point. Maybe you develop new holiday routines. Maybe you learn better coping mechanisms to get through the holidays. But the holidays still hurt. They will never be the same again. You can say that people develop a “new normal,” but that’s just a nice way of saying we continue on…with something missing.

People who have divorced parents. I know a guy whose parents are divorced who married a woman whose parents are divorced. They have three children. He refers to Christmas as “the day we drive around to lots of houses and hope we don’t piss anyone off by not spending enough time with them.” They dread the day. They are grateful to have so many people who love them, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating as they rush from house to house.

People who are seriously ill. Maybe you have dementia. Or cancer. Or something else. Maybe it’s a life-limiting illness, and maybe you don’t know if this is your last holiday go-round. You want to be grateful and enjoy each moment, but it’s not that easy. When I was volunteering for hospice, I spent time with a woman who beat herself up for not savoring what she knew was her last Christmas. She wanted to enjoy it because it was her last Christmas, but she couldn’t stop thinking about how it was her last Christmas.

People who have major depression or mental health issues. Let’s face it…there is not much worse than struggling to be happy in a world where people are singing Christmas music. Being depressed is difficult when you are surrounded by people who are ridiculously happy (although you shouldn’t let them fool you, they are not that happy). The holidays are often rough for people with serious depression and anxiety. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone with significant clinical mental health issues who can say without breaking into laughter or tears that they love the holidays. I have a friend who struggles with depression. She says that depression is like walking through life with a few extra bricks on your back. And the holidays add a couple more.

I could go on…Maybe you hate the holidays because your parents were emotionally abusive and you have to spend time with them—and pretend to be happy about it. Perhaps you are divorced and the holidays make you feel like a massive failure. In my opinion, most of us have a reason that the holidays aren’t what we think they should be…or what we think they are for other people.

If you fall into that category, you are not alone. In fact, if you don’t have something in your family or personal background that makes the holidays at least a tiny bit difficult, you are a rare species…or more likely a liar. Yet, we all put on our biggest holiday smiles and keep stuffing our faces with green bean casserole (or the appropriate side dish in your region–I live in the Midwest). Then, after the day is over, we go home and climb into bed thinking “I survived another holiday.”

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that the holidays are all bad for most of us. They’re not. I’m just saying that they aren’t all good either. They aren’t as sentimental as those Folgers commercials tell us they should be. And our family holiday dinners don’t end with a heartwarming moment when we realize the true meaning of family. For some us, it’s a victory if no one storms out before dessert.

I see a lot of Facebook posts that encourage us to count our blessings today. To be grateful. To be thankful. To be appreciative. I want you to know that being frustrated, grieving, and hurting doesn’t mean you are being ungrateful. Missing someone who is gone doesn’t mean you are unappreciative for the people you have. Noticing that your loved one’s health is declining and mourning that doesn’t mean you aren’t thankful that they are still with you. Grateful is not an exclusive emotion. You can feel grateful while you feel a lot of other emotions as well.

Here is my message for you today…No matter how you feel about the holidays, it’s okay. If you love the holidays and face them with no sense of anxiety or dread, you are a lucky, lucky person. Please understand that many people wish they were in your shoes. If you hate everything about the holidays, I’m sorry. But I know that 95% of you are in neither of these groups. Most of us face this time of year with somewhat mixed emotions. Few things in life are all good or all bad, right?

So if you pretend you’ve forgotten an important ingredient for a recipe just to get out of the house for 20 minutes and stroll around SuperTarget, it’s okay. If you’re proactive, maybe you can forget an ingredient on purpose. If you take your cell phone to the bathroom to text your friend an SOS for emotional support, it’s okay. If you have to have a glass to wine to get through dinner with your family, it’s okay. (Ignore my last statement if you are in Alcoholics Anonymous or are under 21.)

I fully anticipate that I will get a several emails and phone calls in the next week or so. They will be from people who came “home for holidays” only to realize that their mom, dad, grandparent, sibling, etc., wasn’t doing quite as well as they thought they were. They will ask me if they should call a doctor or if it’s safe for their loved one to live alone. Unfortunately, spending extended time around family members we don’t often see leads to discoveries that we often don’t want to make. Once we make those discoveries, we must answer difficult questions and make hard decisions. Sometimes the holidays provide us with information we don’t want to have, but we can’t look the other way. The holidays have a way of putting stuff we’d rather avoid front and center.

So it’s Thanksgiving. You’re going to have to get up, and you’re going to have to face it. The good and the bad. I hope today is more good than bad for you. And if it’s more bad than good, I hope you have someone to turn to that can help you face the bad. When I read cheesy Facebook posts that encourage me to count my blessings on Thanksgiving, I don’t give thanks for having a perfect life…because I don’t. I give thanks for those who support me when my life is particularly imperfect.

Maybe I lied just a little bit. Maybe my Thanksgiving post contains just a little bit of thankfulness…Here goes: Thank you to the amazing family members that I’ve been assigned by the universe, and thank you to the amazing family members that aren’t blood or legally related to me but have shown up along the way. I’m not sure it’s fair for me to hope that my life will never be a hot mess–that’s just unrealistic. But I can hope that I’ll always have someone to share that hot mess with…and I’m fortunate that I do.

Pass the green bean casserole and pink jello fluff. Then let’s look at the Black Friday ads.



8 thoughts on “The Holidays in Dementialand

  1. What a pleasure to read your work here! I love your breadth and depth about the family stuff for any of us with a connection to aging and dementias. Thank you for keeping up this great blog, I derive more from it each time. A book, perhaps? (I am just entering retirement due to a dx of metastatic cancer, and I have a sister in law with advancing dementia. My former work was in community mental health.)


  2. Thank you, thank you for this post, Elaine! If I tweeted, I’d like to start this tweeting around the world…! So refreshing.
    ….back to the creamed onions, (New England).


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