By Annette Juba, LCSW
Deputy Director of Programs at AGE of Central Texas
As a social worker who has worked with older adults for my entire career, I have heard a lot of life stories. Professionally, these stories, their importance, and their interpretation are wrapped into a paradigm called “narrative theory.” Practically, they are moving or funny or evocative. Always, they are inspirational.
With the holidays upon us, I’d like to tell you the story of one of the first clients who made a lasting impression on me: Claude was an inaugural member of an Early-Stage Alzheimer’s Support Group that I facilitated. This was in the days when “Alzheimer’s” was used sparingly. More often than not in my early career, people with cognitive deficits were diagnosed with “Organic Brain Syndrome.”
When the group formed, I was new to the social work field. Most of my direct experience came from working as an Activity Director in a nursing home. As an Activity Director, it had been my job to create experiences and events that would be fun and make people happy.
Claude and his fellow group members faithfully reported to the church basement for our support group meeting each month. The modalities I was most comfortable with, and that seemed most appropriate for our meeting that November, were reminiscence therapy and life review. Accordingly, I planned a discussion that would carry us through an hour and a half of nostalgia.
I assumed we would pleasantly explore the past Thanksgivings of the groups members’ childhoods: dinners at grandparent’s houses, favorite foods, and playing with cousins. Indeed, the conversation started down that path, and I relaxed into my role of encouraging the give and take among group members.
Then Claude began to speak. Unlike the others, he did not describe childhood or young adult memories. Instead, he began describing the upcoming Thanksgiving with children and grandchildren gathered at his house, and his wife cooking many of their traditional favorite meals.
From these comfortable musings, he proceeded to talk of his diminished role in the family festivities and how he would be an observer rather than an active participant in most of the goings on. The losses he experienced in other areas of his life – he could no longer drive, he was physically frail and unable to work in his yard anymore, and his difficulties concentrating and focusing meant he no longer managed his finances on a daily basis – would be mirrored in the holiday gathering.
I was taken completely by surprise then when he announced that this would be his favorite Thanksgiving. In spite of everything, he was still looking forward in his life. This Thanksgiving, he said, would absolutely be the best because it might be the last he would understand.
It is very hard to write about the holidays without jumping to mental images of perfect nostalgia. And, according to my Google search, it is impossible to think about caregiving during the holidays without also thinking about stress. Claude wisely taught me not to be tempted by this perfect vision and not to be completely overwhelmed by the nostalgia of the past.
Jolene Brackey, author of the book Creating Moments of Joy, would agree. As the title of her book suggests, our lives are comprised of joyous moments. We might have to look for them, but even within stressful days, there are opportunities for joyous moments. In this holiday season, I am grateful for the gift of Claude’s wisdom.
On behalf of all of us at AGE of Central Texas, I wish each of you the vision the find joyous moments in your days.