Dear Carol: My parents enjoyed a true love affair during their marriage. I’m the youngest in the family and still live in the same community. Because Dad has dementia and recently had a stroke, he lives in a nursing home. They are doing a good job caring for him, but Mom still insists on spending hours with him every day. I think that this is hard on her in some ways, but it’s what she wants so the family supports it.
What has me upset is that Valentine’s Day is coming up and traditionally Mom and Dad made a big deal about it. Since Dad’s dementia, though, it’s been agonizing to watch Mom try to “celebrate” with Dad when he doesn’t even know what day it is. She gets through this sad process, but it’s painful to watch. How do others handle this? Should I suggest that she just ignore the holiday this year? — SD.
Dear SD: Having been through this as an adult child, I’m right by your side in your emotional pain. However, I do feel that your mom should continue doing this with your dad as best she can for as long as it helps her.
My reasoning isn’t so much that your mom is celebrating the day as it once was but that she is observing it. Your dad's still alive and he’s still who he always was, even though his brain won’t allow him to participate as he once did. His love for your mom is still there.
I’m certain that the nursing home decorates for Valentine’s Day. In addition, Valentine's Day is advertised everywhere, so it’s not as if your mom can avoid knowing that this traditional day of expressing love has arrived. Since your parents always celebrated it, she needs this ritual to keep going.
For Valentine’s Day and my parents' anniversary, I used to order flowers for them to give to each other as well as pick up cards. During their last years, they lived in separate rooms in the same nursing home. On the day of the observance, I’d walk with Mom to Dad’s room and then sit on the arm of Dad’s chair. Mom would give him his card and I’d read it to him and remind him what it was for. Then, I’d physically help him give her the card meant for her.
Some years, Dad was able to understand to some degree what this was about, others he didn’t have a clue. We went through the ritual because Mom needed to observe those days with him as she always had. The whole process was agonizing for me, but I felt that it was necessary.
You’ll need to decide if you can do this with your mom, and certainly, if she decides that she doesn’t want this kind of observation, then you would back her up. In my mind, though, as long as your mom wants to do this, she can use your support.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.