Q: My grandmother moved to a nursing home this summer, and this will be the first holiday season in my memory that she can’t host dinner for the extended family. How can we make the holidays for my elderly grandmother and for us feel special?
What makes this situation so hard is that it feels like you’re having to create a new tradition. Before, you relied on Grandma. As a child, you felt connected during the holiday celebrations at her house, with her traditions. Even though things have changed, there’s a precedent you want to live up to. There are traditions you wish to honor. It’s natural to feel a lot of pressure about holidays for any elderly relative.
First, and this can be particularly difficult during the holidays, I urge you to let go of needing things to be perfect. You should absolutely prep and plan, but things will happen outside that framework, and that doesn’t mean planning was a failure.
That kind of pressure for perfection is what can make the holidays with elderly relatives so hard. We create this idea of what’s supposed to happen, and the moment anything deviates, we freak out. We focus on what’s going wrong, and that keeps us from being in the moment with the people we love. Being together and celebrating relationships is what really matters. That’s what Grandma will appreciate.
Now, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the dinner, a lot depends on location. Are you bringing the meal to Grandma, or is Grandma coming home for a visit? Either way, you’ll want to do some work up front to make sure she’s comfortable. Know where Grandma will sit and make sure her seating is comfortable. Ask her caregivers how long Grandma can join the festivities before getting tired.
Then, try not to make the event something that happens to Grandma. Aging often feels like losing control, and changing traditions at the holidays for elderly people can particularly symbolize that. To whatever extent her cognitive and physical abilities allow, encourage her to help with the event.
For example, maybe Grandma wants to decide what dishes will be served, and whether the main course will be ham or roast beef. She may suggest you use her china or other table accessories. Her new routine may dictate what time the family eats the big meal. Does she feel energetic enough to come early and help cook a dish, or sit and talk in the kitchen?
During the dinner itself, you can extend Grandma’s contributions by celebrating the traditions that meant the most to her and to you.
Maybe the oldest daughter initiates the traditional toast to the family’s health before dinner. Or everyone holds hands while saying grace. Whatever they are, leverage those family traditions as a way to honor Grandma’s legacy even as times change. She can see that her familiar traditions will continue, with the younger generation taking up the mantle.
Another way to include Grandma is to share memories. If you’re having dinner at the nursing home, you can bring along a photo album and invite everyone to tell a favorite story. Reminisce about being children and visiting Grandma during the holidays. If she can, ask Grandma to tell a story as well.
The point is to find ways to invoke that feeling of family connection you had at Grandma’s holiday dinners, and make that beautiful family history come alive in a new space.
You are creating a new normal. There will be awkwardness, and bloopers are going to happen. I encourage you and your family to embrace the process as timely and normal. After all, at one point Grandma herself had to start a new holiday tradition with her elderly relatives, and she clearly succeeded in making those memorable since you cherish them so much.