For family caregivers, holidays can be a difficult time, but they can also be a chance to show love and care to a family member living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. This Valentine’s Day, the Alzheimer's Association teamed up with the UW Memory & Brain Wellness Center to share some inspiring stories from caregivers in our community and tips and ideas for how you can celebrate this holiday with a little extra love.
Joan Provo-Clinkston is a local artist who cared for her late mother-in-law, Barbara Ann Clinkston, who lived with vascular dementia.
Barbara Clinkston and her husband, Bert, lived on Queen Anne in a multigenerational-owned home with their only son David, his wife, Joan, and beloved grandson, Adam, from 2005 to 2022. Around 2015, Barbara began showing signs of cognitive impairment and was later diagnosed with vascular dementia. By 2018, Joan and David had taken on many aspects of caregiving. “It took me down a deep tunnel,” says Joan, “I was always thinking about what she needed.” Over the years, Joan had grown very close to Barbara.
For Joan, it was easy to figure out what made Barbara happy with all she and David knew about her. Barbara was a child of England and experienced the trauma of losing her father during the London Blitz. Barbara grew up knowing food insecurity. “All I needed to do was make her something fresh and delicious,” says Joan, “like mincemeat tarts with pie crust.” One year, Joan gave Barbara a teapot as a present because Barbara always loved a strong cup of tea. “The little things that speak to people, that speak to who they were, to bring back a little of life or spark joy –that is the goal.”
In addition to her love of good food, Barbara was also very creative. She was a prolific abstract painter and collage artist from the 1960s through the 1990s. She even inspired Joan to start painting. So, when it came to Valentine’s Day, there was never a lack of ideas about what to do. “Interwoven through these years of caregiving for Barbara have been special moments that Valentine’s Day would evoke,” says Joan. “I would think about things that would give her comfort or joy or bring back memories of things that she used to love.”
“The last time I baked for Barbara, she was living in a memory care home and was unable to walk. I brought her some banana cake, and she just came back to life and gobbled it up. I felt it tied back to her past food insecurity. It was her last act of self-care—feeding herself.” Barbara passed away in October 2022.
Karen is a caregiver for her husband, Frank, who starting showing symptoms of Lewy Body Dementia in 2015 and was formally diagnosed in 2018.
“I try to meet him where he is at and do the things that aren’t too much. Our lives have gotten smaller since the pandemic and his cognitive limits. Back in the day, I would have brought him to a Celtics basketball game because I knew that’s what he would appreciate. Now, I have to ask, ‘what is it that he will find joy in that won’t overstress him?'” says Karen, “He still finds joy in sweets. We always have chocolate chip cookies available, and we have chocolate chip ice cream every night before bed. On Valentines Day, I make chocolate chip cookies, but dye them red and cut them into heart shapes. Every time he goes into the kitchen for a cookie, he will know they are from Valentine’s Day and that we made them for him.”
Ginger is a wife and caregiver for her husband, Ken, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheime’rs in 2017. He is currently living in the moderate stage while also battling bladder cancer. “I think of the journey as a white water rafting trip,” says Ginger, “We are very much in a routine that works. I’d say we are currently in calm waters enjoying the scenery.”
Ginger has connected with her husband on this love-filled holiday by dancing to music from the days they were dating and singing along, buying flowers together, and making craft hearts to put around the house like a scavenger hunt.
“Look through picture albums. Reminisce about falling in love,” says Ginger, “This works even if they cannot speak. They see the look in your eye and hear the love in your voice. It creates warm fuzzies for the both of you.”
After more than 15 years as a tai chi student of Master Joe Liao’s, Laure faced a new kind of battle when her teacher was diagnosed with dementia. As a student and now dedicated care partner, she grappled with his diagnosis saying, “we still grieve and are saddened that he’s at a memory care facility instead of his familiar studio.” However, she found encouragement and hope in Master Joe’s motto: “The way’s the way.”
Joe had been moved into a memory care facility when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, restricting access for visitors coming to see residents and removing the opportunity for Joe to share his love of tai chi and dance with others in the community. This gave Laure an idea. She worked with the memory care facility to have window meetings with him outside his room and encouraged him to dance with her through the glass to the music she was playing through a boombox. Eventually, this turned into an opportunity for Joe to transform back into a master, teaching tai chi classes to staff caregivers, residents, and even former students who took part through the window on the grassy lawn. His window tai chi lessons have benefited the community as much as Joe, providing a sense of collective support for one another.
“The main thing is to enjoy your time exploring our world together. These moments are for the caregivers as much as our loved ones,” says Laure, “One thing that really helps me is to create a Treasured Moments Journal. Each day I write something that comforts or makes me happy: Today, we toasted teacups of water. Today, we held hands. Today, Joe sang to me.”
There are so many small things you can do to connect with a loved one, whether it’s through dance, walking together and matching footsteps, enjoying a cup of tea, playing dress up, or looking through a photo album together. You can brush their hair, fold colorful towels together, play their favorite music, or cut and paint hearts for Valentine’s Day. No matter how big or small the activity, you can always find a way to celebrate your loved ones on this special day.
You can read more about Joe & Laure’s story in our article from 2021.
Valentines Day Activity Ideas from the Alzheimer’s Association Care & Support Team
Holidays can be tough when you are caring for someone with dementia, but they can also be an opportunity to celebrate love, even in small ways. We asked the Care & Support Team at the Alzheimer’s Association for some tips and ideas for spreading the love this Valentine’s day.
“Be sure to communicate with any visitors about how to best engage with your loved one and acknowledge that Valentine’s Day may look and feel different for you. Be flexible with your expectations and patient with yourself as you navigate this day,” says Erica Farrell, Senior Clinical Manager at the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter.
She and the team provided some of their favorite celebration ideas to help get the creativity flowing as you plan for your Valentine’s Day with your loved one:
- Make a favorite sweet treat together. An adored cookie or pancake recipe from the family cookbook can make a great Valentine’s Day activity. Create shapes with cookie cutters or add sprinkles for celebratory color.
- Valentine’s Day Card crafting. If your family member who is living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia enjoys art, prepare a Valentine’s Day Card making project. Write or decorate cards for other friends and family or for each other. Adjust this for the person’s skill level.
- Listen to music and dance. Listen to your first dance, mother-son/father-daughter songs together, and maybe even dance together if you’re able and comfortable.
- Enjoy the moment. Take photos and enjoy each other’s company. It’s okay to leave task-oriented activities for another time and focus on simply being together.
- Create video cards for loved ones. Record short Valentine’s Day videos singing along to loved melodies or saying hello to friends and family members, wishing them a happy Valentine’s Day.
- Decorate with hearts and memories. Decorate your home with copies of old pictures, paper hearts, and flowers for you and your loved one to enjoy.
- Enjoy a special dinner. Enjoy a Valentine’s Day dinner with your loved one’s favorite foods, their favorite music at low volume, and a few favorite pictures around. Focus on enjoying the moment and every bite in the best company.
Dementia Friends Washington
Another way you can support people living with dementia is to learn about becoming a Dementia Friend! Dementia Friends is a global movement that is changing the way people think, act, and talk about dementia. Locally, the UW Memory and Brain Wellness Center leads the Dementia Friends Program in Washington State. You become a Dementia Friend after you attend an in-person or virtual Dementia Friends Information Session. At the information session, you learn more about five key messages about dementia so that you can share with others. You will consider committing to a small action step to support people living with dementia in your community – such as being more patient, taking a meal to a caregiver, or driving a friend to a doctor’s appointment. Visit the Dementia Friends in Washington State website to learn more!