I love traditions, especially holiday traditions. Being from a large Italian/Norwegian family food played a big part in these traditions. We didn't just make a few dozen Christmas cookies. We made hundreds and hundreds of cookies. The Friday after Thanksgiving was when the season's serious cookie baking kicked off.
My mom and I would gather the old family recipe cards, many which were already decades old by that time. We'd gather our shopping list, pull the tins (that were only used for Christmas cookies), clear the kitchen table and enthusiastically start the month long activity of creating sugary, buttery, nutty, chocolaty, almondy, gingery, cinamonny wonders.
My dad was only allowed the burned or "seconds" cookies, which he looked forward to at least one or two from each batch. Other than that, the cookies were layered in tins and frozen, and not to be touched until Christmas eve.
As our family evolved, kids married and moved away, Christmas gatherings were no longer always in the high double digits. But for some reason, even when I too was married and starting my family, there was always the sense that it wasn't Christmas without truckloads of cookies being lovingly created. As the years past, I had to get a grip on the fact that 600 cookies was not necessary for a family of four, even with many plates for friends, shut-ins and church events.
Traditions are certainly important. They remind us who we are and they give us an identity and purpose in this big crazy world. Accepting that traditions can evolve is also very important, or it can lead to feelings of disappointment and sadness.
How can we keep traditions alive while adjusting to changes in life, circumstances, and the people with whom we share these life memories?
Here are some suggestions that I came to grips with as my own parents aged and as physical and cognitive decline made us look at holidays at what was important.
- Accept that change is a part of life, and be open to trying something new and different. Wow, this was tough for me, but when I did - guess what? It made me feel free. Instead of a small shipload of cookies, I was happy to bake just my very very favorites. In doing so, I freed myself up to enjoy other things during the Christmas season that I enjoyed.
- Decide what is important and make that a priority, but know you may have to scale back. Attending Christmas church services and festivals was and always will be at the core of my joy during the season. As my mom's Parkinson's disease progressed, it became difficult to get out, so we chose just a few simple services and concerts that were more manageable and enjoyable for both of us.
- Big is not always best. In fact, I can say with conviction that in the years I've shared this with caregivers, it is almost a universal fact that if we focus on quality, quieter visits, it becomes much more enjoyable that large boisterous crowds. We think that is a gift, but in actuality, most older adults begin to feel very overwhelmed and anxious is this environment. So instead of ALL the family, set aside small bits of time to enjoy your loved one with conversation, touch and just the joy of presence... that is preserving the moment.
- Accept last minute plan adjustments. Illness, disability, cognitive decline or any other number of circumstances may mean that a holiday plan may need to be canceled or changed. This is called life, and if we accept it with grace, it will be less stressful on caregivers, families and your loved ones. Sometimes these unexpected changes are actually blessings in disguise for accepting what may be a new normal.
It has been 10 years since my mother's passing, and while I hold these traditions near and dear, I have also been able adopt new traditions with my family that make life all that much richer. My hope is that you may do the same.
Pam Brandon is President/Founder of AGE-u-cate® Training Institute and a passionate advocate for older adults and those who care for them.