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Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

My friend Amy opens her front door and a hospice care person steps inside. They walk back to Amy’s dad’s room–a small Christmas tree sits on table positioned for him to see.  It’s the only holiday decoration in the house. Caregiving and the holidays can be a tender time–and a time of dread.

You might be asking, “Is this our last Christmas together?”

If your loved one is in hospice, it might be. But this is Amy’s second Christmas–with hospice in tow. Still, she feels that her dad won’t make a third.

“There’s a finality to this holiday we haven’t had before. Even dad knows it.”

I asked her what means the most to her this season–what’s the one thing she has to do.

“Our family tradition is that on christmas Eve we gather around the tree, drink egg nog and open our gifts.  Dad always reads from the Book of Luke and we sing Silent Night.”

Amy teared. She’s worried her dad won’t make it that long.

I suggested she move up Christmas Eve–that her dad probably wouldn’t question the date. Her face lit up and a smile spread across her entire face, softening worry lines.

What do you do if this is your last Christmas together?

Whatever brings you relief, whatever comforts you–do it now.

Surround you and your loved one with support and ease.

Ask for help, say exactly what you need–or ask for space–whichever you need.

Let go of expectations.

Let go of everything and everybody who causes you stress.

Pull in. Get Quiet.

Find your place of peace.

Make your own Christmas. Don’t wait.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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Thanksgiving is more than just turkey, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. Sights, smells and recipes conjures childhood in a way nothing else can. As my mother’s daughter and caregiver I became the woman in the kitchen.

The roles shifted and I wore the apron but I kept my mother alive–by making dishes from my childhood–Waldorf salad, Daddy’s pound cake recipe, and the best dressing on the planet. I would set my mother in a chair at the kitchen table while I scurried around the kitchen–offering her a taste of this or that and smiling when even with Alzheimer’s she’d suggest a bit more sage.

And then my mother was gone. She passed on a warm June day in our home with the lace curtains swaying and a cardinal on a branch just outisde her window.

That next Thanksgiving was tender.

Whether you still have your mom or dad, or if they’ve passed, I hope you’ll enjoy this Thanksgiving essay.

***

Thanksgiving Morning

I get out Mother’s enamel fruit bowl, the one painted with apples and grapes and pineapples. I know it must be from the fifties. I get out the potatoes and peeler and begin scraping the brown strips that fly and stick to the edges of the bowl. The white chunks are placed in a Revere Ware boiler that Mother gave me as a wedding present twenty-three years ago. I fill it with cold water and a dash of salt, and as I turn on the burner I suddenly feel five again and can see the small mound of salt crystals in the center of Mother’s palm and the quick turn of her wrist.

This is my first Thanksgiving without Mother here.

Sometimes she would stop right in the middle of her cooking, turn the pot upside down for inspection and lay it on the edge of the sink. She sprinkled it with salt and baking soda, then squeezed a little lemon juice from the yellow plastic lemon. Her fingers made little scrubbing circles with a sudsy Brillo pad, her shoulders hunched, her face intent and her whole body pressing down as if she could cleanse the world of its sin. I hung around to watch the quick rinse under the faucet. She tilted the pan for me to see the copper as it gleamed. Satisfied, I’d head outside to swing.

She’s been gone five months now.

I watch and wait for the potatoes to boil, for the familiar starchy foam that gathers first around the edges, turning the water opaque as the potatoes dance. I carry the heavy pot to the sink. The kitchen window fogs from the hot air that rises as the potatoes hit the strainer. With a shake, I pour them back into the fruit bowl, and blend the soft squares with cream, salt, and butter. They give way with each press of the old masher, the red stripe of paint flaking on the handle.

I spoon the fluffy potatoes into the green flute-edged bowl then remember, this bowl was used for the Waldorf salad, not the potatoes. I’m too tired to find another bowl, so I take them to the table, already set with my mother’s grandmother’s crocheted tablecloth and tell myself, no one will notice. Besides, does anyone but me like apples, walnuts, mayonnaise and raisins anyway?

With a snap of the Tupperware lid, I place a dozen cold deviled eggs into the heavy divided egg plate. I see Mother’s hand take two, three, four, then another after a slice of both the pumpkin and pecan pie. Aromas of turkey and pole beans fill the air. I cut up bacon to flavor the beans and watch them simmer with crescents of translucent onion. Mother liked her vegetables tender—they tasted like mush to me; for Thanksgiving, I cook them a little longer.

I would stop and cry, but it would take too long, and the rolls would burn.

The buns, too hot to simply pick up, get shoved or tossed from the aluminum foil-covered cookie sheet into the silver bread warmer, the round one with penguins carved on the sides. I wonder, how many dinners of my childhood did I spend staring at those flightless birds?  Each year, my head slightly higher, I viewed life from a different perspective. I can’t find the top of the warmer, it probably got lost in the move, so I fold a napkin over the rolls to keep them warm.

I put out the turkey on its tray and set it in the middle of the table. I get out a pale yellow organza apron, stiff with starch. Mother must have ironed it some ten, maybe twenty years ago, and although it’s a bit musty and dinner is ready, I tie it around my waist. I remember the slam then the slide of the iron, and that sweet, hot steamy fragrance of starch on cotton. I used to watch Mother take the tip of the silver triangle and go around tiny buttons, pressing Daddy’s white Sunday collars. A strand of her hair slipped across her forehead as she warned me to step back. I brought my crayons and paper and drew at the old-fashioned school desk she put in the kitchen and that Daddy had painted gold. They loved gold. I liked hearing the phish sound the iron made after each burst of steam, as if exhausted from its labor.

I call everyone to the table and pull out a chair, the chair Mother sat in last Thanksgiving, and sit down.

I pour red wine into crystal goblets, given to Mother by her sister-in-law for a wedding gift some sixty-seven years ago. Mother never used them, but I’ve already broken one. We fill plates and my husband, our daughters and our guests all take hands, and we bow our heads in thanks.

I never knew I’d miss her so much.

***

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

Hold those you love dear–in your arms–and in memory.

Have a blessed and joy-filled Thanksgiving.

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Holidays, birthdays, other celebrations when you’re having your grandparents, in-laws, teens, college kids, dates, toddlers, spouses and sometimes ex-spouses all under one roof–it can make you feel like you”re a lion tamer and you never know when one’s going to take a swipe at you.  You may be the primary caregiver, or the out-of-town sister, the peacemaker, the black sheep, or even feel like you’re the one who gets lost in the crowd. Families often bring out the worst in us, even when we’re really trying to be on our best behavior. So how do we come together–multigenerational famileis –and  really be together in meaningful ways?

How to Really Be with Your Family:

  • Be yourself. You don’t have to be rude and crude, but also try not to put on a front. Let them love you for who you are–warts and all. If they rib you a bit too much, say, “Hey guys, that hurts. Please don’t kid about that.” But go ahead and be who you are. It’s our quirks, our vulnerabilities, our oddness that makes us unique. So what if you’re divorced–again, if you’re gay, if you have a reputation for drinking a bit too much eggnog or if your housekeeping skills (or lack thereof are legendary) Let them talk. In the end, it’s better just to be yourself. When you like you–everybody else falls in line.
  • Embrace your wild and crazy relatives! While you’re with your family, decide to be with you family. No iPhones, Blackberries, Facebooks. Be present. Give smelly Aunt Gladys and great big hug and make her day. Don’t fuss about the 1,000 calorie casserole–eat a spoonful and enjoy it–or eat the whole thing and don’t worry about it. Sit among your aunts, uncles, ex’s, kids, grandparents and feel the connection you have–the DNA cocktail that connects you–for better or worse–and accept them as part of you.
  • Decide right now not to let anyone push your buttons. If you know someone really like to zero in and dig at you–then don’t hang out with that person. Get up and move. Ask someone to take stroll around the block, play chess with your dad. If you get cornered and they start in on you, open your arms and give them a big hug and say Merry Christmas and then walk away–even if they’re still going at it! And remember, if a good ole’ family fight breaks out, it’s par for the course and will give you something to talk about in years to come!
  • Do something together–play a game, charades, start singing some Carols, play Scene It or Wii. Pitch in and wash dishes so mom doesn’t have to. Or find someone who’s all alone–and sit with them–you may be surprised that they really do have a lot to say.  We tend to fight and nit-pick a lot less when we’re engaged, when our hands are occupied.
  • Find someone to give to. Look for opportunities to give–maybe your grandmother has Alzheimer’s. Get out an old album and look at each picture with her. Many times their memories go deep and you’ll find a connection, something  or someone from long ago. If your dad’s caregiving your mom, then hire respite care and take him off for the afternoon–to a car show or an indoor shooting range, or to do a little shopping.  The gift of your time and ability to touch someone’s life is the best gift you have to offer.
  • Put a time limit on your visit. If you have one of those families that things get ugly as the night wears on, then set a timer on your phone and leave before the werewolves come out to play. It’s better to be with your family for three hours–and then leave with good memories–rather than stay for eight hours and see the ugly side emerge. You’re also sending an important message–that you don’t have to subject yourself to verbal abuse and people acting in ways that are hurtful to themselves and others.
  • If your family gathering is at your house, then take a few “smoke” breaks. You know how smokers sneak out about every two hours and sit outside for ten minutes in the quiet? Who says we need to smoke to take a smoke break! About every two hours, slip outside. Bundle up and take a short walk. Go to your room and take a ten minute nap. Being together doesn’t mean you can’t get away and decompress. Trust me, if you step out for just a few minutes, you’ll come back refreshed.
  • Look for a “God moment.” That’s what I call that one special moment during the season when I feel the true essence of the holiday spirit. I’ve come to expect that holy sacred time to emerge when I least expect it. Sometimes it’s a random act of kindness from a stranger, other times it’s a red cardinal that lands on a frozen bird bath, or a child’s hug that simply takes my breath. We get what we ask for–and if you come to expect life to delight and surprise you, it will.

Yeah, our families can drive us crazy–but we love them, too. Love them for who they are. Be yourself and come together with all your edges, your oddness, your hurts–and spend just a few hours really being with your family. Then leave- with those new memories safely tucked away-before things go amuck!

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Do more people die around the holidays? Yes, sadly they do–at least hospice numbers reflect a rise in deaths during the holiday season.

Some factors are obvious–flu, depression, car accidents to name a few. It’s hard on families–to have a loved one on the brink of death during what’s supposed to be a joyous time of year. Caregivers are torn between exhaustion and sometimes feel a tinge of relief after a long bout with cancer or heart disease. It’s hard to face the holidays while you’re grieving–and grieving starts long before your loved one dies.

A dear friend of mine worries if her dad will make it through this Christmas. Everything seems bitter-sweet. Her mom died near the holidays as well, and she misses her each year when she’s decorating the tree–something they used to do together. “I try to enjoy the season, but it’s hard. Hospice is coming three times a week–and we all know it won’t be long now.”

Perhaps the hardest thing to face is a new death. Recently, I met a woman at a care conference who just lost her son to AIDS. It’s only been two weeks, and she looked completely depleted–physically and emotionally. She says she doesn’t want a tree–she couldn’t stand to look at one. I told her I understood. It’s okay to “skip Christmas.”

Grief may get notched up a bit during the holidays. It may be that someone you love died during this time of year (even long ago) and your body has a “muscle memory” of that time in your life. You may not have verbalized it, but then it hits you-and it all makes sense.

Maybe it’s that you’re supposed to be happy that makes it so impossible to muster any joy or sentiment. Nobody wants to be told they have to decorate cookies or deck the halls. That’s not a should. Trust that if it’s a really rough time in your life that it won’t always be. It’s just for now. Be where you are. The only way I know through grief is to take one moment at a time. Even breathing or thinking can be so difficult at times.

Do what feels good. If you like driving around looking at lights, or going to see a performance of the Nutcracker, or sitting in front of a fire cracking nuts–do only what brings you a sense of peace. That’s the essence of this season. Don’t get caught up in the busy-ness, just do what’s easy.

“Treat yourself like you would your best friend,” I said to a friend who’s having a tough time. She’s one of the kindest, most giving, patient people I know. Too bad we don’t always extend that generosity to ourselves. I asked her what her best friend would tell her to do–she said, “She’d make me hot tea and tell me I can go put on my jammies.” Good advice–we should listen to ourselves once in a while.

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You want to know what time of year is the busiest for neurologist’s who specialize in Alzheimer’s, dementia, Lewy Body, and other memory disorder conditions?

January.

Why?

Because families tend to gather during the holidays.

Maybe it’s been a few months (or even since last Christmas) since you’ve seen mom or dad.

Or, maybe your spouse says something odd at the family get together.

Maybe he asks if Aunt Tilly is coming even though she’s been dead since 1992.

That’s how it happens: We notice the difference in our loved ones if we haven’t seen them in a while–when their normal routine is disrupted and it triggers a different response.

You fly back home, but now, you’re concerned.

Last Christmas you just attributed it to aging. Everyone forgets now and then, right?

But Alzheimer’s and other neurological/memory loss issues go beyond losing your car keys.

Visit the Alzheimer’s Association site (click here) for the ten most common warning signs of Alzheimer’s.

What’s the next step?

If you live far away from your parents, you may want to start visiting more often–or you may want to check into geriatric care managing companies who can help keep an eye on your loved one’s situation.

Does Mom (or Dad) have Alzheimer’s? What do I do?

  • First, check out the ten warning signs
  • Start calling and visiting more often–no one wants someone to butt into their life if there’s not a real relationship to back the sudden concern
  • Talk to your other parent (if they’re still alive) ask them what they think
  • Talk more than once–they may be resistant at first–ask their opinion and reassure them you’re going to be involved and will help find solutions
  • Get your parent (or other loved one) into see a neurologist that specializes in Alzheimer’s/geriatric patients
  • Get an official diagnosis
  • Create a folder/organizational system to keep all the paperwork associated with the care of your loved one–you’ll need it
  • Consider medications
  • Begin short term and long term plans
  • Much of life can continue on as it is now–make any necessary changes gradually. It’s important that your mom or dad doesn’t feel like this is a death sentence. You can still have a rich and meaningful life–encourage your parents/spouse to continue on with church, activities, vacations, and every day activities for as long as they can.
  • What insurance do they have? Do they have long term care coverage?
  • Contact your local/regional/state department of elder affiairs or council on aging–these are government organizations that have a bounty of information
  • Go online and begin to help research community care resources such as adult day care centers, respite care, caregiver’s support groups. There are great websites such as Caring.com and Health Central to help educate and support both the person facing the disease and the caregivers and other family members.
  • Encourage your loved one or spouse to attend an Alzheimer’s (or other memory disorder they may have) workshop/talk at their local hospital, or other care facility
  • Look online for your local chapter of Alzheimer’s Association, Parkinson’s Foundation, etc. They’ll have a list of resources in your area.
  • Consider home health care–many private company’s such as Comfort Keeper’s offer at home care and assistance on a daily or weekly rate
  • Talk to other family members, especially siblings and brainstorm about ways to help–calling, home care, repairs, time off for the other spouse
  • Talk to everyone about a long term plan. If your mom/dad/spouse ever needs to go into a memory disorder care home in the future, what are your options?

This is just a basic list, but it’ll get you started.

I had ignored the warning signs that my mom had Alzheimer’s/dementia for a couple of years.

She wanted to continue living independently, and I wanted her to as well–for her sake, and so I could go on my life.

I was in my late thirties, I had three teens to raise, a husband, a career–I really didn’t want to face the fact that my mother had Alzheimer’s.

I didn’t do any of this deliberately. I didn’t even know I was doing it. That’s why they call it denial.

By the time I figured it out, (my mother hid it, made excuses) she was almost past the point of medication helping. Don’t wait that long.

Emotionally, you and your family have some issues to deal with as well.

I’ll address that in another post, but know that it’s normal to feel kicked in the gut, angry, shocked, scared about the future–and concerned that if your parent has it, you could get Alzheimer’s as well.

You’re not alone. Sadly, millions face the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s every day.

The good news is, there is help.

There are more resources, medications, and support out there now than there ever was.

You’ll figure out how to do this–how to handle the changes. Life can still be good–for everyone.

Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available in hardback or on Kindle

www.caroldodell.com

Family advisor at Caring.com

 

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Are you afraid you won’t be there when your loved one passes away?
Take a moment and be with them now. Close your eyes and talk to them.

A friend called me tonight. She was upset.

Her grandmother had a heart attack–and it doesn’t look good.

She’s afraid she won’t get there in time.

The holidays are a tough time to add grief and worry to the mix.

Not that there’s a good time for a loved  one to die, but it just doesn’t seem right when it’s the holidays.

This is supposed to be a happy time, right? A time for family.

If only disease and death were that courteous–to give us a few days a year of peace.

But unfortunately, it may come at a time when everything in you says, “no, no, no.”

I had a talk with my dad in the middle of the night. I had dreamed about him. I don’t even remember now what the dream was about.

He was having yet another heart surgery–and I woke up–the dream had been so vivid. So, I got up, and he and I had a talk.

Daddy didn’t die for another eight months, but this experience was so real, and ever since, I’ve been so grateful for that quiet time with just the two of us.

 

I listened and suggested that my friend take a few minutes alone and talk to her grandmother.

You can’t always control timing. You can’t always travel–so don’t wait to have that heart-to-heart talk.

Time, distance, disease, loss of memory, and even pain…our prayers, thoughts, and love can transcend all these barriers.

Don’t wait until you get there–planes and cars take time–the power of love is instantaneous.

 

If you’re in this situation, I hope you’ll take a few moments.

Tell them you love them.

Tell them it’s okay to let go now..

Tell them you’ll be okay.

If you need to, ask forgiveness–and accept forgiveness.

Thank them for who they are to you, what they mean to you.

Accept this experience into your heart. This is just as real as if you were to physically be in their presence.

Be at peace.

If your loved one passes away before you arrive, then you’ll have already said what you needed to say.

~Carol O’Dell

Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir

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Let’s face it–there’s just too much to do during the holiday season–and if you’re caregiving or a sandwich gen-er–you’re really feeling it by now. 

Sure, it’s all good–the tree, the gifts, the home baked cookies, the parties, the family gatherings, the lights…

Every one of those holiday components can be truly wonderful–the fresh smell of the tree, the wonder of what’s in that big, sparkly-wrapped box…

But then the proverbial “soup pot” boils over and the cookies burn, you don’t want to go to one more red-sweater party (or there are no parties and you feel empty), and the whipped cream on top of the hot chocolate–someone says/does something really ugly…I mean you feel like your head’s going to explode you’re so mad.

Not exactly what you had planned, huh?

It’s all too much.

If you want a good laugh, the Thanksgiving segment of Boston Legal will make you snicker (you can watch it online).

Around the holiday table is Denny Crane, (played by William Shatner) who has Alzheimer’s, so he”s always good for a few inappropriate remarks, Alan Shore, his best friend (played by James Spader--he could read to me alll night) decides to deliver a lawyerly rampage on American politics…and the other players all pitch in their own prejudices, stereotypes, and funny banter that will make you WISH your family was this witty in their all too familiar digs. 

It all winds up (after a really big fight) in the kitchen with Denny thoroughly confused. Christmas, time, memories, love–it’s all too much. The small moment winds up being a long hug between two old friends.

But of course, you can’t just leave it like that–on a sweet note–no!

Just like at your house, (or mine)–someone has to take it too far and someone really does get their feelings hurt.

It happens. We’re human, and no one, no one can push that exact right button to make you go off than someone who shares your same DNA.

My other Christmas funny movie is the classic “Christmas Vacation” with Chevy Chase. We still kid about his aunt wrapping up the cat and trying to give it as a gift–and then she sings the National Anthem instead of offering a blessing. My mother actually did that once–so we all went with it–hands on our hearts and belted out our national pride.

All you can do is spike the egg nog and go with it. Christmas and the holidays can bring out the beast in all of us. But if we look really close and think small, we might find something of value

My only advice is survive. Any way you can. Just envision that Last of the Mohican’s guy about to jump into the waterfall and telling the love of his life. “No matter what, I will find you. Survive!” This is what I tell myself when I’m really stressed. (FYI guys, All and I do mean ALL girls love that scene).

Choose one thing–whether it’s riding around looking at lights or baking Italian wedding cookies from your great aunt Sophia’s recipe–pick one thing that means Christmas to you–and do it. Don’t get hung up on what doesn’t get done, and what gets screwed up.

The perfect Christmas/Chanukah/holiday is  really more than the human race is capable of.

Zero in on what is most sacred, most precious to  you. That’s all that matters.

One small thing. 

For me, it’s going to hear the Edward Water’s choir sing. They’re amazing, and sitting in a tiny chapel with warm wood walls and stained glass windows while 20+ college students belt out the Carols with soul and spice is the perfect way for me to celebrate the season. I attended last year, and tears streamed down my face–I clapped and sang and felt more in touch with the season that I had in years.

Each of us have to find our own way, what touches our heart and lifts our spirits.

If you’re caregiving, think really small. Hot tea and a cookie while sitting in front of a fire might be just right.

~Carol O’Dell, author of Motheirng Mother

Family Advisor at Caring.com

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