Making Christmas Not So Blue – The Activities Director

img_8493 “Hey, come here. Come here,” Mom called out, while Elvis crooned White Christmas.

Remember those days when you dragged yourself to the kid’s Christmas concert? The one that lasted all of an hour, maybe even half? And you hoped and prayed that your kid would do what he was supposed to do in his “starring” role. Well, as a caregiver, guess what?

Those days are back.

And they’re not half-bad.

While Mom shouted to the singer, I sat back, looked around for the activities director, and together, we laughed off Mom’s demand.

While I admire the many caregivers and nurses who care for Mom, the most challenging role in a care home might be that of Activities Director. How do you plan for events with a demographic that loses their concentration easily, likes snacks, but has an adult orientation and wisdom and set of experiences in life?

Recently, I had coffee with a friend who was considering transitioning her mother into a care home. We discussed our individual paths that had led us to be together in that moment with a set of shared experiences about our mothers experiencing cognitive decline.

“But how do you know you’re picking in the right one?” she asked.

I always had my pat response. “It’s only the right one, for right now.”

But that’s not what I told her. Instead, I struck upon different thought, after having spent two days in a row at two separate care home for two Christmas events.

“Meet the activities staff,” I shared with her.

She looked at me with a mixture of surprise and “aha”.

While Mom was still able to engage (express herself and cuss are two other phrases I would also use), I wanted to ensure Mom had the opportunity to interact with guests that came through that day, whether that person was an Elvis impersonator, a chaplain, or women from the local church who say the rosary.

But it wasn’t just the guest appearances on the calendar that were important. Many care homes can program a calendar.

img_8484But who is behind the programming? Who is responsible for knowing who you’re mother is, and where she is, in the moment, and what activities she might deem interesting enough to keep her away from the door (alarm on) when the temperature is 18 degrees outside?

I have one other learning from the larger events that include families, as the past two have. These events are designed as an opportunity to witness how all the staff interacts with your loved ones. Will they dance with the woman who always quotes Telly Savalas’ who loves ya, baby? Does the couple that knows Miss K. from church, sing with Miss H. because they know she loves her song? In essence, how well do other families know and treat your loved one?

Finally, when the activities calendar is plentiful, this too, is a chance for you as a loved one to sit back. Because yes, sometimes the events are planned with you, the loved one in mind, to take a break from being the person who oversees care of the loved one and to just relish.

“Hey, Mom. That’s Elvis. You know, Blue Suede Shoes. He’s pretty good, right?”

“Good. Yes. He’s large though,” Mom said.

“Well, Mom, yes, Elvis did get quite large. I guess about 160 or 170 at the height of his singing.”

Mom nodded, still rather fixated on Elvis, pointing to him several times, while he swung his hips and sang back to her.

Like all Christmas shows, I ate too many cookies and cried at one too many White Christmas’s.

The holidays are especially difficult for those of us with loved ones in a care home, the grief of a life left behind often overtaking the joy of the season.

But these events serve to remind me that, yes, when I was in third grade, my mother sat through countless practices and performances of Little Drummer Boy, listened while I pulled on the too tight white tights, or complained about wearing a tunic (with no pants, this was akin to a dress for a tomboy).

Now, it was my turn. To listen to Mom protest about not getting her cookies right away. “Hey, Hey, how ‘bout over here?” Or, because the music was too loud, and she was unable to discern many of the lyrics due to the singer’s baritone voice, Mom scolded me or maybe Elvis, “Oh, just hush.”

While testing my interpretation skills and my patience, holiday events are a test of love. And Activities Directors and staff are there to make certain I pass.

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