Eric Douglas Published

When Mom Has Dementia, How To Celebrate Mother’s Day

An older daughter helps and gaining parent.toa555/Adobe Stock

Mother’s Day is not always a happy day for everyone — like when mom has dementia and is forgetting the family she raised. News Director Eric Douglas is facing this situation himself. 

For his ongoing series Getting Into Their Reality: Caring For Aging Parents, he spoke with Chris Schneider, the director of communications for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, about how to celebrate Mother’s Day when mom has dementia. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Obviously, this weekend is Mother’s Day. It’s a joyous time, it’s a wonderful time to celebrate our mothers. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for a lot of people as well. My own mother has dementia and is in a nursing home now. So I’m dealing with this myself. So let’s talk just a little bit about how to handle celebrations like this with a person who has dementia. How do you cope? How do you handle it?

Schneider: Well, as you mentioned, it can be challenging just because of the nature of the illness in the way dementia affects the person living with it, but also the way those it affects their loved ones. But one of the biggest things that people can do is just adapt the celebration and being adaptable and flexible are two of the most important traits for any caregiver. And what Mother’s Day is really about is honoring the special mother figures in your life and celebrating the bond between you. And while dementia may change how that’s done, it doesn’t change the bond. So, it’s important that if you’re celebrating with a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, just adapt that celebration, but remember, it’s about the love you share with your loved one.

Douglas: You’re gonna tell me probably keep things a little lower key. Don’t have too high of expectations, but what are some of the things somebody can do to adapt their celebrations?

Schneider: You want to try to adapt old favorites. And just as you mentioned, somebody living with dementia may not be able to do things exactly as they did before the onset of dementia. So, an example is if every Mother’s Day you went out to your mom’s favorite restaurant, and now she’s not able to go out to the restaurant or doesn’t feel comfortable going out in public, or maybe crowds cause anxiety or fear or other emotions like that. Order in food from that establishment. 

If large crowds make her uncomfortable, make the gathering a little smaller, but still spend that time together and still celebrate her and show her that you care and show her how much you appreciate. And it’s just those little adaptations. If the person enjoyed playing a musical instrument, maybe listen to music with them together, listen to their favorite songs. There are ways to adapt things to keep the spirit of the celebration there and incorporate what your loved one likes to do and favorite things but do it in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

Douglas: This happened a couple years ago before I realized exactly what was happening, but my mom was always big into baking and loved baking cookies. She glanced at a recipe, I think to pretend as much as anything else, to be able to bake all this stuff. And not long ago we had my daughter’s up, and had her up, and we were going to bake cookies. I asked her to start something and I could tell it wasn’t going to go well so I quickly jumped back in and took over and had her do some decorating or whatever with my daughters. That was well before the diagnosis but I think that was a signal for me that we have to have to look at this a little differently. 

Schneider: But you found a way to adapt, which is a good thing. You know if she can’t bake exactly as she did before, but she can help with certain ingredients, or help with part of the process, you’re still involving her in something that she used to do and likes to do. You’re letting her experience that sense of purpose and accomplishment. But you’re doing it in a way that makes her comfortable. And that’s really one of the biggest things you can do in terms of making an adaptation. And not only that, it helps create new memories, so you’re focusing on what she can still do what she’s able to do, and what she chooses to do now, not necessarily dwelling on what she is no longer able to do. And those are two good things as well. 

I once heard that the most valuable commodity is time, because you can’t make any more of it. It’s a finite resource. So, spending time with your mom and spending that quality time together doing things that again, she likes to do now, and is able to do now that’s really one of the most important things you can do to creating those new memories together and bring her joy in a way that she’s able to experience. That’s better than any gift she can receive.

Douglas: I was thinking possibly something I would maybe put in the “Don’t do” category is sometimes they try to put too much pressure, whether showing pictures or just trying to remember when we did this, and I think that’s a way to get everybody upset. But are there any other things that you would say do not do?

Schneider: I think you hit the nail right on the head with that one. Reminiscing is a great form of therapy. Familiar faces and old photos can bring joy and comfort to someone living with dementia. Even if they don’t remember the names of the people, they may still remember the time or they may remember the face. Or they may remember even that, even if they don’t remember who it is, they may just know, “Hey, this is someone special.” So, looking at old photos together is a great thing to do on Mother’s Day. 

But as you mentioned, you don’t want to ask, “Don’t you remember when we took this trip? Don’t you remember who that is?” Because they may not you know — it’s a memory disorder. So you don’t want them to feel pressured or embarrassed or ashamed. As you’re looking at the photos together, describe for them as you’re going through them who the people are, who the occasion was, “Hey, Mom, this is me and you and your daughter, and this was when we took that vacation to Florida together. It was such a great time.” Do it like that. So you’re giving them the information and allowing them to experience the reminiscence but you’re not putting the pressure on them. You don’t want to do that.