The Art of Celebration

Traditions and rituals are part of the way we mark time and enjoy the rhythm of our lives. Like the ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, each holiday seems to fill with memories of the past, activities of the present, and hopes for the future. If we asked each of you, “What makes a good holiday? What do you enjoy doing?” we would get a variety of answers. The uniqueness of our identity is often expressed in what we enjoy and how we spend our time. As we and our loved ones age, we are constantly faced with the task of reimagining how to express who we are and how to enjoy our lives in their current circumstances. This is no simple task. Especially around the holidays, family and caregivers have an important role to play in understanding the art of celebration.

Particularly if loved ones are suffering from a chronic illness such as dementia, it can be difficult to know how to involve them in the celebrations and help them participate in the traditions of the season. Whether we are approaching major holidays from a variety of religions or we’re just living in the everyday, we all need reasons to celebrate and find joy. We all need those projects and people that call us out of bed to a new day and help us engage in the time we have. Here are 5 gateways into the holiday season to help you celebrate with aging loved ones and build new traditions. 

Food 

Everyone has a food story. Cooking a big meal or hosting the family get-together may not be a possibility for aging or ill loved ones, however, stories have brought the generations together as long as there have been fires to tell them around. During preparations or meals, have everyone tell a story about food. What is your earliest memory of food? What did you eat growing up? Did you ever have a meal go terribly wrong? What is the most exotic or best thing you have ever eaten?     

The Senses

What we touch, taste, hear, smell, and see holds the key to the how we experience the holidays and the world around us. A change in our environment can usher in the different seasons and signify something quite special. Whether your aging loved one is spending the holidays visiting family or they are in a care facility pay close attention to their environment. The smell of orange and cinnamon, the texture of a cozy blanket, or the sound of family laughing can provide a visceral form of communication even if a loved one is non-verbal.   

Purpose

As we put that extra leaf in the dining room table, peel the potatoes, or wrap gifts, much of our tasks are about the human connection behind the work. We all need to be needed, to contribute, and to have a role to play. We may be tempted to pamper our aging loved ones by setting them up on the couch with a warm drink and a “get out of helping free card”, but this may rob them of their need for purpose. Play to their abilities by asking for help in ways that they can contribute. This might look like entertaining the kids with a movie, lighting candles, saying a blessing, washing vegetables, arranging flowers or setting the table. Work is one of the languages of love and it is important that we continue to have ways to say, “I love you” with our actions.  

Art/Play

The holiday season has an element of creativity about it. We are often making things for one another whether it is baked goods, a photo card, or a knitted scarf. Regardless of the end product, gathering the family for a group art/craft project can be a great way for the generations to spend time together, find reasons to laugh, and remember to play. Copy a variety of old photos to make a family collage, decorate cookies, put together a model airplane or puzzle, or have an ornament decorating contest. If your loved ones are not the crafting type, enjoy the arts together by planning a trip to a concert or museum.   

Giving Back

Many holiday traditions include a philanthropic element. Giving to another person can help aging adults feel connected and important whether the gesture is big or small. Find ways of volunteering or giving as a family. Fill mason jars with dry ingredients for holiday cookies to give away to neighbors, adopt a family and put together gifts or food basket donations, group together family donations to contribute to a local charity or community you are involved with.

Our expectations around the holidays are often shaped by holidays of the past, but one year can be so different from the next. As our loved ones age and change, it is important that we learn how to adapt with a spirit of creativity and compassion. May we all know how to celebrate well in the places and circumstances in which we live. 

Published on December 4, 2014.