A few months ago I wrote about the value of intergenerational activities and mentioned an anecdote about a young teen I know who has been building bird feeders with his grandfather and friends to deliver to nursing home residents. Today I am inspired to write about a different kind of sharing which I noticed over the winter holidays. Unable to travel to family gatherings, zoom gatherings have become the norm for pandemic holiday dinners. Instead of asking to pass the salt, we are passing the tablet. The desire to be together has only been heightened by pandemic restrictions. Weddings, milestone birthdays and anniversaries, baby christenings, funerals are all being streamed to share with family and friends who cannot participate in person.
I think you will agree that preparations for holidays are almost more fun than the actual celebrations. Digging out family recipes is one such pleasure. One of my friends did her annual gingerbread house decorating in December with her out-of-town grandchildren, but each was in her own kitchen hundreds of miles apart. This tradition was too important to them to drop and they all enjoyed the social patter as they worked on their projects. Another friend told me she received a call from her Israeli granddaughter who was grocery shopping and wanted to make sure she had everything she needed to make “Safta’s [Grandma’s] chicken soup.” Although the grandmother was delighted to hear from her, the granddaughter had miscalculated the time difference and woke her at 5:30am! That is a little story they will retell and laugh about for many years. Every family recipe has its own story behind it and sensual associations with traditions and heritage that are so valuable to preserve. For immigrant families, food represents part of the world they left behind as well as the world they live in now. Enjoying ethnic food evokes taste and smell memories of different times and different places. Singing holiday songs and decorating are timeless pursuits that remind us of happier days.
I am hearing about grandchildren video-chatting with their elders to learn more about their family stories and heritage. Perhaps the isolation of the pandemic has stirred up a greater need to belong and to identify with family. Maybe we have all learned to appreciate our core values. There is more interviewing and recording of family stories now than ever before, as we hope to capture them before the memories are lost. Often seniors who were silent about their wartime experiences with their own children are now willing to talk to a new generation of listeners. Even old stories are new to new members of families. How many people received mail in DNA kits for holiday gifts and are eager to explore who they are and where they came from? Genealogy is a hugely popular pastime, with young and old eager to trace their family lineage and create Family Trees. Connecting family names with actual people and their stories is fun and fulfilling. It is historical research yet intimate and personal at the same time. It is also a wonderful activity for family sharing and can lead to fascinating surprises.
Even if your relative is living with cognitive decline, you can still encourage him to share stories because often long-term memory remains intact while short-term memory declines. The past often becomes more important to share. The same basic human need for being part of a community or family is felt by older adults living with dementia. Isolation creates withdrawal. You can use Validation techniques to bond. With a little help from others who can manage the technical aspects of a video call – you can reach out and connect heart to heart with relatives living with dementia. This winter is a great time to gather family recipes and stories to learn more about who we are.
By: Fran Bulloff, VTI President
The Validation Training Institute (VTI) is a non-profit organization that advances knowledge, values, education and research rooted in the Validation method. The objective is to nurture respect, dignity and well-being in the lives of older adults experiencing age-related cognitive decline and their caregivers. Our vision for the future is that every older adult experiencing age-related cognitive decline, and their caregiver, can feel the joy and love of meaningful communication.