The Festive Tree: Embracing All Seasons With Alzheimer's

My grandma recently moved into a long-term care home following an infection, and a stay in a rehabilitation hospital. Despite her quarantine for the initial weeks followed by a respiratory outbreak, she's settled in surprisingly well — even telling my aunt on one of the first days, "I think this is a good place to be."

Every year since my grandpa passed in 2014, I have gone to her house to decorate her Christmas tree. First with her, then for her as she looked on. Her move-in was over the holidays, and while essential designated visitors, my mom and her siblings, were allowed in, general visitors like myself were not. So, I decorated her little tree at home, my mom and I wrapped it in plastic, and my mom carried it in ready to go and made the "repairs" as she fluffed the tree back up.

But as the holiday season ended my grandma remained attached to her little tree.

And, I got an idea.

A little bit of green

The familiarity of routines is so important for people with Alzheimer's, and I think that cozy holiday decor of a Christmas tree is like that. We had to swap her usual small artificial tree (which I used this year!) for my smaller Christmas tree, but she thought it was cute and, when I was finally able to visit after Christmas, I told her she and I would trade Christmas trees this year and she seemed okay with that!

I have been able to visit twice now over the last 8 days, and the tree is a favorite topic of conversation! My mom alluded she wasn't sure how we would get the tree out of there and I thought, "Why do we have to? Let's just decorate it for every season!"

A tree of memories

Back when my grandma lived at her house, I hopped on the bus one day and went to help put the Christmas decorations away. My grandma said to me, "Oh, don't worry about taking the tree down, I'll take it down later."

I tucked the trees into the corner of her living room. "Hey, I kind of like it there," she said.

"Maybe we should just leave it and see how long until anyone notices?" I suggested.

This is the mildest form of conspiracy, but over the next year, my grandma and I would, in secret, revisit how nobody had commented on the undecorated Christmas tree in the corner. On this went from January to November when we sat with my mom and aunt and one of them said, "Guess it's time to get the Christmas tree back up."

More than 10 months had passed. My grandma and I locked eyes and then moved our gaze to the corner of the room, mere feet from where my aunt sat on the love seat, where the little tree had been causally tucked behind the coffee table.

My mom and aunt followed our gaze and my grandma and I laughed at their disbelief, that indeed, the tree had been out all year, and at the very least, bringing her and I a stealthy joy! And if that joy persists... It should be embraced!

Changing with the seasons

As mid-January hit, we prepared the seasonal tree swap. My first visit after the respiratory outbreak protocol finally ended, my grandma laughed as we showed her the red paper heart decorations my mom had found at the dollar store, and swapped her Christmas decorations for Valentine's Day ones.

Every time we enter her room, the lights on the little Christmas tree were on. The day we swapped the decorations, the staff commented with excitement over her little Valentine's Day tree, and I am sure continued to after we left.

She is so proud of that little tree, and it proved to be a great, positive conversation starter. A week later, my grandma began again talking about her little tree, ready for Valentine's Day, and she smiled and laughed. I told her (twice!) about our plans for that tree as the seasons change!

A St. Patrick's Day garland. Easter decorations including a garland of glittery eggs and carrots I found at the dollar store, some little rabbits my mom found at home, and some spring hanging eggs with flowers on them! Some fun, flowery spring ribbon to wrap around after Easter is over, and I can lend her some of my rainbows from my Christmas decoration box!

I have ordered a pair of cheap kids sunglasses to be the summer tree topper, and go with my popsicle string lights. I have plans to locate and turn some of those tiny drink umbrellas in garland to hang from the branches.

We can add red bead strands, maple leaf pinwheels, and little flags for Canada Day, then quickly revert back to the "Summer Tree" after July 1. Then will come the beautiful colors of fall, and perhaps a Halloween tree... I will have to think of an interim step between Halloween and Christmas before we start the cycle again!

A brief sense of pride and fun

Disorientation to time and place is all too real in Alzheimer's disease. Does the tree help that? Maybe sometimes. Yes, she asked if we had Christmas already in January, but Christmas remained on her radar as the snow continued to cover the ground, which feels like a win.

Will a Valentine's tree or summer tree be too abstract to give that grounding? Perhaps - we will find out!

But, even if we get to hear her laugh as we redecorate every minor and major holiday, a brief sense of pride at her silly granddaughter and daughter, and hear her pride as the staff share in the joy of her festive tree when they come to care for her... That's what it is all about!

Have you found special ways to celebrate even the "small things" with your loved one? What are the things help you both find joy?

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