A woman once relayed to me a story about her 90-year-old mother, Ellen, who had Alzheimer’s. Ellen was at a large family Christmas gathering. She received a shiny red gift bag with bow on it. With some prodding, she opened the bag. Inside she found a pair of cozy socks. She seemed mildly excited and thanked the gift giver. She then put the socks back in the gift bag.
About five minutes later, Ellen turned to the person on her left and thrust the gift bag onto her lap.
“For you!” she exclaimed. The woman declined the gift, reminding Ellen that it was a gift for her and that she had opened it a few minutes ago. Ellen seemed a little sad and quite confused, and she sat quietly with the bag in front of her.
Later in the evening, Ellen noticed the gift bag again, and she tried to give it to another family member. The family member told Ellen that the socks were a Christmas gift for her, and that she should take them back to the nursing home and enjoy wearing them.
Ellen’s attempts to gift her relatives continued. Each person offered the gift turned it down and explained that Ellen had opened it earlier in the evening.
At the end of the night, Ellen’s daughter drove Ellen back to the nursing home. Ellen placed the gift bag containing the socks on her nightstand.
The next day, Ellen’s daughter visited the nursing home. A nurse told her that she wasn’t quite sure if the socks were supposed to be a gift for another resident, but that she had watched Ellen wheel herself down the hallway and hand the bag to another woman with dementia.
The woman looked in the bag and broke into an excited giggle. Ellen beamed. The nurse said that two woman, both of whom struggled to communicate verbally, sat in their wheelchairs exchanging giggles and smiles for a minute or so. Then Ellen turned her wheelchair around and returned to her room with a little extra vigor (as much vigor as a 90-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s in a wheelchair could muster). The nurse said she was moved to tears at the interaction.
It occurred to Ellen’s daughter that what her mother wanted the most was to be able to give a gift. It took a bit of work for her find a willing recipient, but she finally did.
Hearing this story made me think of spending time at the nursing home where my mom worked when I was a kid. Residents were always calling me into their rooms and offering me…things. All sorts of thing. I’m not sure if I was taught this by someone or if I just did it intuitively, but I accepted the gift. Even if it was something I had no interest in, I accepted the gift.
The gift might have been a piece of candy that had been in someone’s room for several years. (Did you know that really old milk chocolate turns white?) The gift might have been the banana that someone won at Bingo. Once in a while it was something someone had made, like a knitted scarf. I remember someone giving me one of those small packs of Kleenex (already opened) that you keep in your purse. Obviously, I would have not been able to accept a gift of valuable jewelry, but by accepting the gift, when possible, I made the gift giver happy.
Dementia can take away a person’s ability to give to others like they have been able to throughout their lives. A woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s recently told me that the hardest part of her dementia journey thus far was that family and friends could no longer count on her. More than anything, it had always been her priority to be a giving family member and friend. She felt like dementia had stolen her ability to give. She told me that when she was able to give, the people around her often declined those gifts because they didn’t want to burden her. She struggled to explain her need to give in those areas where she was still able to give.
Let’s face it. Gifts are a big part of the holidays. Most of us have bought someone a gift that we were really excited about. As an adult, I seldom think, “I can’t wait to see what Mom got me for Christmas.” I am more likely to think, “I can’t wait to see Mom open what I got her for Christmas.”
Imagine showing up at an event where everyone was giving each other gifts without a gift to give. It wasn’t an issue when we were kids, but showing up empty-handed to a gift exchange is something that causes a feeling of anxiety for most grown-ups. I actually once went to a work Christmas party where attendees were supposed to bring a gift worth less than $25 for a gift exchange. I apparently didn’t read the E-vite thoroughly enough. I considered using cash for the gift exchange, but I only had $3. I went the bathroom, contemplated my options, and snuck out the side door.
I’ve heard stories about people with dementia re-gifting or giving slightly (or not-so-slightly) used gifts. Grandma gives her daughter a pair of gloves that her daughter gave her last year. I know a lady who gave a friend a half-empty bottle of perfume for Christmas. Someone in my own family once gave a friend a tube of lipstick that had obviously been “pre-used.” You might think these gifts are less than thoughtful, but the opposite is true. People with dementia are doing the best they can with ongoing cognitive changes, and those gifts probably took many times more effort than the presents I buy for my friends and family during the holiday season.
When someone with dementia offers a gift, accept the gift. It’s that simple.
Accept the gift.
Even if the dark chocolate has turned white. Even if you don’t like bananas. It doesn’t matter.
To connect with someone, you always accept the gift.