By Margaret Pole
Whenever I see or hear the term “celebration of life” used as a euphemism for a funeral or memorial service, I wonder how well the deceased’s life was celebrated while he or she was alive. In the case of those who lived to a ripe old age, I particularly wonder what, if any, celebrations they enjoyed in their latter years.
With the passage of years, an elderly person’s loved ones often move away, become infirm, or die. Add to this the pervasive undercurrent of the culture of death, which views the disabled and the frail elderly as inconvenient and of little value. The result is that the elderly and disabled often suffer from isolation, loneliness, and depression.
Those of us who love and care for the elderly and disabled must affirm the God-given infinite value of their lives. A fun and rewarding way to do this is to celebrate birthdays, special events, and holidays in a way that is meaningful for them. Of course, activities need to be tailored to your loved one’s physical and mental condition, and place of residence, but you can use your creativity to plan unique and enjoyable celebrations.
If your loved one has dementia, you might worry that they will not recognize guests you would like to invite to the celebration. Even if they don’t, if your loved one has any significant level of awareness, they will enjoy your guests’ presence, the festive occasion, and being the center of attention. Who can measure or put a price on the uplifting effect that such an experience could have on their psyche and their soul?
My father turned 90 in 2014. Overall, he was still in relatively good shape, but was suffering from mild dementia, partial hearing loss, chronic back pain, arthritis, and mysterious occasional falls not caused by heart attack or stroke. Both he and my mother were no longer driving, and their physical stamina for attending social events outside the home had significantly declined. Nonetheless, they greatly enjoyed visits from family members, neighbors, and friends.
The last large gathering in Dad’s honor was the big surprise birthday party our family gave him when he turned 70. So, we planned a surprise 90th birthday open house because we knew he would enjoy seeing not only family and neighbors, but also long-time friends he hadn’t been able to see for years. We also sensed that this would probably be our best opportunity to do this for him. Also, it would be a good chance to let friends know how he was doing, even if they couldn’t attend.
We had balloons, decorations, a banner, flowers, festive foods, a large decorated cake, tables set up outside, and so forth. We were amazed when almost double the number of people we expected showed up-70! Most importantly, Dad was surprised and delighted! He recognized each and every guest. Guests were asked to share memories in our guest book, and we displayed photos and memorabilia.
In the days following the open house, Dad didn’t seem to have a clear recollection of the event itself, but he greatly enjoyed viewing the memorabilia, old photos, and photos of his party, as well as reading his guest book and birthday cards. We continued to display these items for quite a while afterward, as visible reminders of his special celebration. This also provided an ideal opportunity for us to ask him questions and learn more about his life experiences. I think this was a good mental exercise for him, as he was able to recall many details.
Two years later, shortly after he had received a terminal cancer diagnosis (see “Just to See Him Smile” in the June 24, 2016 issue of PHA Monthly), we held a family Valentine’s Day party and, about a week later, a “pinning ceremony” for him, provided through our home hospice agency. The hospice offers these ceremonies to honor military veterans while providing an opportunity for family and friends to gather with and celebrate the hospice patient prior to death.
On very short notice, we managed to gather a few family members, along with almost 30 neighbors and close friends. Dad was noticeably weak by then, but his pain was well managed and he was still relatively alert and able to sit up in a chair or wheelchair for at least several hours per day. The hospice sent a representative of the military, who presented him with a pin and gave a nice little speech. A lovely patriotic-themed handmade quilt was donated by a local quilters guild. My nephew was touched when the military representative asked him to put the pin on Dad. Another very poignant moment was the arrival of a long-time close friend whom Dad hadn’t been able to visit for a few years. He, like Dad, was in a wheelchair. As his caregiver wheeled him close to Dad, the two men smiled and stretched out their arms to shake hands. Dad couldn’t speak much by then, but he seemed to be clearly aware that all these guests were there for him.
Those who couldn’t attend the pinning ceremony appreciated being contacted, since we also updated them on Dad’s condition. Those who attended welcomed the opportunity to gracefully and indirectly say goodbye to him before he died. We asked our guests to sign and write some kind words on decorated foam sheets. Dad enjoyed seeing these greetings after the event. Three weeks later, he passed away. We displayed these greetings, along with his other memorabilia, at his funeral reception.
My mother turned 87 in 2014, several months after Dad turned 90. Although she then had no noticeable dementia and no known serious health problems, she seemed noticeably weaker than Dad. My sister and I doubted that she would reach her 90th birthday. So, we planned a big birthday bash for her as well.
Thanks to the talents of my sister and a friend, we put on an amazing ladies’ Victorian-style tea party, complete with an elaborate menu and decorations. We had another large turnout, and many guests came dressed in tea party regalia. Mom was in seventh heaven and the ladies loved it!
Thanks to a timely diagnosis and a skilled surgeon, Mom survived a very inflamed gallbladder in 2015, and we were blessed to be able to celebrate her 90th birthday in July of this year.
At her open house, Mom was decked out in a tiara and an “official” birthday girl button. She basked in the glory of being the queen for a day. This event wasn’t quite as fancy as her now-famous tea party, but it was a lot of fun and very festive. Once again, we were surprised by a larger-than-expected turnout–about 50 people! (Some of those who had attended Dad’s 90th birthday had passed away or were in ill health and, therefore, could not attend.) Mom has moderate dementia now, but just like Dad, she recognized all of her guests. Souvenirs of the party are pinned up on her bulletin board, which she greatly enjoys viewing while reminiscing about her party daily.
Shortly after Dad and Mom’s parties, we received several follow-up phone calls, cards, and visits from friends who had been unable to attend. These were all great morale boosters for both of my parents and hopefully for the friends as well.
Inviting guests to a celebration is beneficial for both your loved one and your guests. The open houses for my parents allowed friends and neighbors a pleasant way to reconnect with each other, and our family enjoyed learning what was happening in our guests’ lives. On the invitations, we stated that no gifts were necessary to avoid imposing any financial burdens on our guests.
Transforming the ordinary
A memorable and enjoyable celebration for your loved one need not be large or elaborate. You can make it special even if it comprises just the two of you. What matters most is that your loved one knows that their very existence is reason to celebrate and that you’re making an effort to bring joy to their lives. When I recently asked Mom what she enjoyed most about her parties, she replied simply, “Having the family there.”
You can also look for ways to make ordinary days special. For Mom, I often use our good china and fancy napkins, and usually manage to have some fresh flowers around the house. While caring for both Mom and Dad, some of my happiest moments were our frequent Saturday pancake breakfasts and Saturday hamburger suppers followed by Dad’s favorite, root-beer floats. Watching them enjoying themselves filled me with joy as well.
Celebrating the living
It is fitting that funerals and memorial services include such elements as beautiful music; kind words and gestures of honor for the deceased; cards, words, and gestures of comfort for surviving kin; memorabilia and photos honoring the deceased; beautiful flowers or other decorations; and special foods or refreshments. Moreover, as a firm believer in the communion of saints, I have a well-founded hope that the Lord permits our deceased loved ones to have some awareness that such events are taking place on their behalf–especially when they include Masses and prayers offered for their souls.
But, why wait until someone has died to do these things? Why not also do similar things to celebrate, honor, and pray for our loved ones while they are still alive–especially when their time left on earth is short? Why not let them know how much we love and appreciate them while they are still with us? So, let us also have celebrations of life for the living. Don’t wait until it’s too late!
Margaret Pole is a freelance writer and editor. As she promised her late father, she now cares for her mother at home.