Making Memories When Memory is Elusive
Written with love by my sister, Anita Pulley, and reprinted in the spirit of Christmas, 2020.
Christmas is a time when memories of Christmases past flood our hearts and our brains. We often generously spend our time, energy, and money to recreate our most wonderful Christmas memories. We yearn for another memorable Christmas for ourselves, our families, our friends, and even sometimes for perfect strangers. Yet many of our friends and loved ones have memory issues and for them, “remembering” is difficult or impossible. How can we create special Christmas memories for them?
To me, this quote provides the answer: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will not forget how you made them feel.” (Often attributed to Maya Angelou but multiple people have written/said some variation of this general idea.) We can create Christmas memories by helping our friends and loved ones FEEL THE JOY AND LOVE of the holiday season. Here are some ideas to consider; of course, you’ll have to adapt them depending on the situation and severity of the person’s memory issues.
MUSIC Christmas/holiday music is readily available at this season. Play a radio station that is all holiday music. Sing along to some of the classics, especially songs from the era when your loved one was a child or teenager. Ask him/her what his favorite Christmas carol is. Go to a holiday concert in your community or at your church or at the facility where he/she lives.
SMELL/TASTE Helen Keller said “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” The part of your brain associated with smell is immediately adjacent to your memory center and thus, smell is key in prompting memories. Bake cookies or make hot cider or hot chocolate. Decorate with live evergreen trees or branches. Put out a bowl of cinnamon-scented pine cones. Cook your loved one’s favorite foods...ones that were always served at Christmas. Draw their attention to the smells.
SIGHT Take your loved one to see the sights of Christmas beyond his/her own home. Drive through neighborhoods at night and look at Christmas lights. Drive through McAdenville, or Sunset Hills, or Tanglewood, in North Carolina or any of the beautiful public displays of holiday lights in your community. Go see a life-sized nativity scene. Walk through the mall, or down your main street, and look at decorations and store displays. Watch the kids as they sit on Santa’s knee and tell him their wishes.
What traditions can you continue or recreate that have been important to your loved one in the past? If it’s your parent, what are things they did for you as a child that you could recreate for them? Read the Christmas story from Luke? Attend a church service? Go to a Christmas tree lighting? Put out cookies for Santa? Give your friend or loved one an active role, within his/her capacity, to assist. The possibilities are as unique as your family.
REMINISCE Yes, at the latest stages of memory disease, the person cannot remember. But until that point, they can often remember things from long ago. So, encourage your friend or loved ones to talk about those times, not what they did yesterday. Give them some specific areas upon which to focus. Try to make it more than a YES/NO question and ask additional questions to help them tell their memory. “Tell me about what was Christmas like when you were a child?” “Did you ever try to catch Santa Claus putting out presents? If so, what happened?” “What was your favorite thing to get in your Christmas stocking?” “What is the best Christmas present you ever got?”
If you can find old photos of Christmases past, use them as memory sparkers and ask him or her to tell you what is happening in that photo. Follow up their story with a comment such as “What a happy time that was for you.” “How lucky you were to have parents who made Christmas special for you.” Or if it’s not a happy memory, then “That must have been a really sad time.” Empathize with the feeling behind the story. Give gifts that help your loved one reminisce: a framed photo or photo album from long ago; a CD of some of their favorite music from their youth. Share your own stories of Christmas memories that included you and them.
MY WISH I’ve shared a few of my ideas, please feel free to share yours. I hope you will find a few ideas to use to help create the FEELING of Christmas for you, your family, and your friends/loved ones, no matter how elusive memory may be. Focus on what you have, not on what is lost. Peace and love to all during this special season.
Anita Pulley, Winston-Salem, NC