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Keeping holiday traditions

“Mom, remember when we were traveling to South Dakota for Christmas and we got caught in the snow and we had to stay in that horrible hotel? They only had one room left and it was freezing cold and the snow came under the door! Dad had trouble getting the car started the next morning. We met Uncle Paul at the Dairy Queen and exchanged gifts so they could travel safely back home. That’s one of the Christmases I remember most!”

Really? All the hard work we go through to “prepare” for family gatherings to be just right and that’s the one she remembers the most? I worked hard to have the tree look just right, the variety of cookies just perfect and of course the gifts were fun to choose and beautifully wrapped. The memory however is of being stuck in a snow storm!

Maybe, just maybe, “the stuff” is not what is important. Really? No matter your religious beliefs or what holiday you celebrate, the traditions, the little things, the family gatherings, make the most important memories. The memories for my daughter were that we were trying to get to grandma’s because that was important, and that we were together as a family, no matter where that landed us!

Our family had a wonderful tradition, 51 years I attended to be exact. We always were at grandpa’s on Christmas Eve and everybody who could possibly be there was there. The gathering grew to more than 60 people, and still we were in grandpa’s little house. The menu was the same, the schedule was the same. The gifts changed slightly and faces changed. We grew older, but there were always “the kids.” I was a grandchild, but soon it was an important tradition for my children, the great-grandchildren. Before Grandpa passed “the kids” were the great-great grandchildren. But the traditions were always exactly the same.

It’s tough when things have to change, but inevitably they do. Grandpa is gone now. Families grow and change. It’s not always possible to be in the same little house. Abilities change. All of these things don’t change the fact that holidays are to share with those you love and to create wonderful memories, no matter how that needs to happen.

We tend to focus on the kids at holiday time, but gradual changes in our senior loved ones cannot be ignored. If every year, your family looks forward to Mom’s famous turkey dinner with all the fixings, you may want to pay attention to how Mom feels about this. She starts her preparations early in the morning and it’s not long before delicious smells of green bean casserole, homemade stuffing and roast turkey reach every corner of the house. But maybe you’re noticing that in the last couple years Mom has lost her stamina. Making the meal wears on her like it never has before. She actually had to sit down to peel the potatoes. She was exhausted for the entire following week.

Such gradual changes are a trend that many families know well. But these stages of aging don’t need to steal the joy from older adults and sideline them for all holidays to come. Following are a few ways to adapt popular holiday traditions that can help seniors continue to enjoy the festivities.

• Reconsider the menu. If Mom can no longer handle preparing and cooking the traditional meal on her own, make it a group effort. It’s a win-win: Mom can supervise and the next generation can learn all the secrets to making those favorite family recipes.

• Mix it up. Older adults are usually most alert and at their best earlier in the day. Why not plan a holiday brunch rather than a lunch, or attend a daytime religious service instead of the evening one?

• Think simple. You may love seeing the family home all decked out for the season, but hauling boxes of decorations may become impossible for seniors who struggle with mobility and balance issues. Get together with family and friends and decide which holiday decorating traditions to keep and what to forego.

• Be their eyes, hands and feet. When arthritis prevents seniors from writing cards or macular degeneration damages eyesight and makes it difficult to shop for gifts, you can offer to take on those tasks. If time is short, suggest more efficient options such as online shopping and sending ecards.

• Compensate when necessary. If hearing impairment keeps Dad from enjoying the annual holiday movie, check out the latest sound enhancement technology. If Mom is having trouble seeing the deck of playing cards, look for large print cards or activities that can help keep her in the game.

• Hit the road. You no doubt remember it as a child – those holiday light tours that you and your parents loved. A holiday driving tour is an easy way to bring back the memories and joy to an older adult who can no longer decorate.

• Go Skype. Distance can separate older adults from loved ones, which exacerbates loneliness, isolation and depression during the holidays. Use the latest technology to help an older adult stay connected to loved ones from afar.

• Relive memorable moments. Seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias will especially appreciate opportunities to tap into old memories. Listen to favorite carols and ask your loved one to share his or her most vivid memories, like taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride or hunting game for the holiday meal. Talking about the ornaments on the tree often bring up great stories.

• Make new memories. Sometimes, things must change. If an older adult can’t participate in the holiday or is hospitalized, why not create a simple video that shares highlights of the season? Or arrange to have a group sing carols to your senior loved one – traditional songs from his or her generation.

• Get help! One of the best ways to adapt holiday activities is to ask for help. Enlisting the help of a professional caregiver to help with meal preparation or to provide transportation for your loved one can lighten the load for families and free them up to maximize special holiday time with their senior loved one.

Happy Holidays! May your days be full of traditions, of gatherings together (even if by Skype!) and sharing with those you love.

DEB CRANNY is the executive director at Home Instead Senior Care in Brainerd.