By Dwayne J. Clark
This Father’s Day, if you’re lucky enough to have a father (or stepfather, father-in-law, or another father figure) in your life, celebrate like there’s no tomorrow. There may not be, as some of us have learned through first-hand experience.
We can lose a loved one suddenly, through an accident, disaster, or health-related catastrophic event. Or we might find a father (or father figure) slipping away gradually. If the loss is unexpected, you’ll treasure the memory of every celebration you shared. If you’re anticipating the loss due to a slow and painfully progressive disease, you can still create memories to cherish. You might just have to work harder at creating the type of celebration your relationship deserves.
When my mother turned 87, it would have been fairly easy for my family to insist on a simple, low-key birthday commemoration—or even not to celebrate at all. Mom was then in the final throes of a nearly 10-year fight with Alzheimer’s and the disease had long since been winning. My mother was barely conversant, not always conscious and in no shape to blow out birthday candles.
We threw her a party anyway. We put on a big blowout combination birthday/Mother’s Day gala, complete with a band that was tasked with playing all of her favorite tunes. We had a beautiful, tasty cake with lots of family and friends, all of whom gathered around her and chimed in with tributes, remembrances, love, tears and laughter. It was a great day for all of us, and in her own way, I think Mom recognized what was taking place and enjoyed herself. Just as importantly, the party gave all of us a chance to spend time together, gain a bit more closure and add some new meaningful, colorful moments to the family memory book. To this day, I recall that party as one of the many highlights of my mother’s life—and my own.
I write about this because, as the CEO of an assisted living company, I see a lot of families who downplay and even shy completely away from their traditional family celebrations and rituals, such as birthdays, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and even Christmas and Passover.
It’s easy to understand why. It can be awkward and difficult—painful even—to try to celebrate with someone whose personality is being taken over by Alzheimer’s or dementia or whose physical presence has been irrevocably altered due to a variety of illnesses and misfortunes, such as a stroke, Parkinson’s disease or accident.
Some people believe that they’ll only upset their loved one, and many wonder if there’s any real point. A lot of people have a tendency to give up and say, “Well, this person is dying,” or “this person isn’t always fully present,” and forget how critical it is to distinguish the circumstance that their loved one is now in—sick or aging or losing their memory—from who they truly are.
The truth is that when you continue to celebrate with long-held rituals and traditions, continue to do for your loved one what they would have done for themselves and focus fully on who that person is at their very core, you are showing them honor and giving them dignity and respect.
And there is so much benefit in doing that—both for your loved one and yourself. You queue up fond memories and give the person an opportunity to feel more loved, appreciated and involved. And you get the joy of helping them realize all those positive feelings, in addition to creating new memories and fostering new points of closeness and closure.
Dwayne J. Clark is the founder and CEO of Aegis Living, currently with 28 senior living communities in Washington, California, and Nevada, and the author of “My Mother, My Son: A true story of love, determination, and memories…lost” (2012,