The holidays can be a time of great joy or deep despair. Spending an hour or two with those who are older or alone might be the best gift you could possibly give.
As we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah this week, many people will gather with friends and loved ones.
Children anxiously wait to open their gifts and hope those they give are received with equal joy.
Have you ever given any thought to the gift, however, that might be the most meaningful to the older members of your family?
A goodbye trip
For the last 18 years, I have spent the Christmas holiday with my husband’s family in Santa Fe. Because part of the family is Jewish, we shared in the ceremony of lighting the menorah each night when our trip coincided with Hanukkah. It was also fun to watch the kids spin the dreidel to see who won the pot of gelt (chocolate covered coins).
When we arrived in Santa Fe last year, my mother-in-law was sleeping up to 20 hours per day, unable to care for herself and experiencing paranoia that we later learned was related to a chronic, undiagnosed infection.
A few days after we arrived, her husband, Bill, suffered a major heart attack. My mother-in-law rose to the crisis and nothing could keep her from going to the hospital, no matter how much effort it took.
Holiday rituals: A tapestry of meaningful memories
It was against this backdrop that we had one of the most meaningful and poignant Christmases ever.
As always, the tree was decorated with ornaments collected over six decades. The stockings my mother-in- law had meticulously sewn for her sons and grandchildren hung over the fireplace. My husband made the traditional stollen (a German holiday bread) to be consumed with gobs of butter on Christmas morning.
Playing Santa was really important to my mother-in-law. Her children and grandchildren (who now ranged in age from 18 to 27) would wait in the hall. She would go to the doorbell, ring it and then shout, “Thank you, Santa!”
That was the signal to run into the living room, grab your stocking and pass out the presents under the tree. This time she couldn’t make the door, but she was strong enough to shout out her thanks to Santa.
After breakfast, we loaded up Bill’s favorite holiday foods and went to the hospital to see him, and he enjoyed the goodies we brought. Before we left, the doctor gave us the bad news: Bill had less than 10 percent of his heart function left.
That night, dinner was the traditional beef tenderloin and scalloped potatoes. It was filled with laughter as we recalled the joys of Christmas past and relished these moments of happiness, all the time dreading what was to come.
As we all feared, it was our last Christmas dinner in Santa Fe. Bill died a few days later.
Give the gift of sharing memories
As adults, we work hard to make the holidays a special time for children in the family. What no one ever talks about is how precious the holiday rituals and memories are to the seniors in your family.
If you have a grandparent, great grandparent or some other special senior in your life, they will understand when you can’t make it because you planned that expensive trip or had to spend the holidays with the other side of your family — but it doesn’t mean they won’t miss you.
Even if you can’t be together for the actual holiday, carve out some time from your busy schedule to visit with that senior, especially if he or she is in assisted living or skilled nursing. Visiting these places can be depressing for you, but your date to see that person is something that is looked forward to and says volumes about your love and care.
During your visit, reminisce about your favorite memories, ask about how they celebrated in the past, or do something special to create a new memory for them. It could be bringing a picnic basket filled with their favorite holiday treats and enjoying them together, even if it’s at their bedside.
If the person is mobile, it could be taking them to a holiday dinner or concert before you head out on your trip or other holiday function.
Create new rituals
This year, my husband’s family begins a new Christmas ritual at his brother’s house in Colorado.
My mother-in-law is in a skilled nursing home — her beloved Cubs won the World Series — so she is looking forward to her “jail break” to join us for an early Christmas dinner and traditional Christmas morning breakfast, with plenty of stollen.
As you grow older, the rituals and memories you have created over the years become increasingly more precious. No matter how you choose to celebrate, focus on remembering those times from the past while also creating new memories and rituals this season.
Bernice Ross, CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, author and trainer with over 1,000 published articles and two best-selling real estate books. Learn about her training programs at www.RealEstateCoach.com/