A neighbor of mine, who has Alzheimer’s and lives with caregivers, whose family members visit frequently, loves Christmas lights. One strand of lights is left up all year long so she can look out the window and see them, but at Christmas more lights are strung and the house blinks in festive colors. I haven’t asked any of her family members, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t understand that it’s Christmas. She just likes the lights. 

 My father, at a certain point in the disease, no longer understood why there was a lit-up tree in the living room, but he liked looking at it. We had to accept that as being enough. I’m sure he also didn’t understand why our entire family had congregated in his home, since that was not a usual occurrence for us, but the pleasure in his expression was unmistakable. 

 An estimated 6.5 Americans have Alzheimer’s, or some other form of dementia. That means that millions of households this holiday season will be dealing with the reality of a relative who no longer knows what the holidays are. It means that millions of family members and friends will be thinking back to other years, other holidays, when the specter of disease was a distant thought – something that happened to other people, something they would read about, feel sympathy for, but not confront in their own lives. None of us think we are going to be dealing with dementia, until we are. 

There is no escaping grief, nor is there any escape from the empty gaze of a parent, grandparent, spouse or sibling who doesn’t recognize or understand the festivities that surround them. But there are things to reach for beyond the grief, beyond the haunt of memories. Alzheimer’s steals cognition, memory, the thought processes that link up the present with the past. But I don’t believe Alzheimer’s can steal what is in a person’s heart. I remember looking at my father’s face as he watched his family gathered in the living room and seeing the deep well of gratitude and love there. It was what he always wanted for this family, and he never fully understood why we could never manage to be that family. Yet that evening, with a tree in the living room that blinked with lights, shone with ornaments – a tree he didn’t understand the meaning of – his focus was on the gathering of people who were engulfing him with love and tenderness. His heart understood what was important; that’s something that Alzheimer’s can’t take away.

The challenge for the rest of us is to bend our minds away from grief and loss long enough to look at the holidays through their eyes. It matters that your loved ones aren’t alone. It matters that they feel the leaning-in warmth of those who love them. You can miss who someone once was while still treasuring what remains. I know what these living rooms feel like, with a relative sitting and watching, not participating, their eyes far away, looking puzzled sometimes. It can feel like you are crossing a desert to get to them, to interact with them. It’s an act of faith to believe that deep inside them, they know you’re crossing that desert, they know you love them and miss them, and faith, after all, is what the holidays are really about.


  1. My1stGradeTeacher says:

    I love this anecdote about your father. I always knew Ronald Reagan was a kind person at heart. What special insight !:-)

  2. Cathy Babao says:

    Dear Miss Davis, I’m sorry if this comment appears twice. Not sure how to navigate this site. I just wanted to say that your books have been so very helpful. I finished reading “Floating On The Deep End” last night and was so moved by it. My mother is actress now on year 8 of her Alzheimer’s journey. I’m a writer/author, grief coach and dementia and end of life advocate in my country. I also wanted to ask if it would be possible to run your Beyond Alzheimer’s program /support group here in one of our bigger hospitals in the country (Philippines). I’m sure that your support group could be a beacon for many families here who will be needing the support and information that a BA group could provide. Thank you very much!

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