Out With The Old, And In With The Weird

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 Life used to be 'normal'. But the onset of my Dad's dementia changed all that.

We no longer fit the mold. With simple tasks at hand, like eating a family meal or watching a movie, chances are we'll find an awkward and disjointed way through it. If our task requires contact with the public, like grocery shopping or an evening walk, chances are eyebrows will be raised along the way.

If you have a close relationship with mental illness or dementia, then you know what I'm talking about.

Life is so much easier when, in the privacy of our home, we as a family can shape our expectations and activities of daily life around my Dad's random and unpredictable condition. It's called survival.

On the other hand, our stress goes through the roof if Dad's random and unpredictable ways, along with our coping methods, are forced into a 'normal' mold, which usually happens when we leave the safety of our home for the misperceiving and unforgiving world beyond.

I can't tell you just how many strangers we've caused to frown in confusion over the last few years. We often get strange looks from bus drivers, store clerks, and neighbours. Sometimes Dad will sing with gusto at church even though he doesn't know the words to the song, and the people around him either stare, smirk or exchange 'knowing' glances with each other. The irony is, of course, that if they truly *knew* anything about dementia, their looks would be less 'knowing' and more compassionate!

No, Dad won't always behave in socially-prescribed ways, and neither can the rest of our family if we want to help him feel valued, respected and as informed as possible about what is going on around him. Dad will say things that don't make sense, and sometimes we have to say equally strange things in order to help him feel at ease. The world operates on one schedule, but Dad operates on another, and to keep Dad safely operating in society we often need to walk in step with him.

So expecting our words/actions/choices to be 'normal' just isn't realistic anymore. Masking our 'different' lifestyle doesn't work either, and yet sometimes cultural traditions almost force us to do just that. That's why holiday time can be extra stressful for us, with all those formal dinners and social gatherings. I used to enjoy them so much, but they've become much more challenging since Dad got sick.

This article, about US Thanksgiving and the traditions that surround it, highlights just how stressful these time-honoured traditions can be. When I think of holiday traditions, I think of family and friends enjoying each other and their cultural heritage. But sometimes our traditions create so much work and unrealistic expectations that we end up spending more time separated from or even frustrated with our loved ones. Julie Barnhill writes:

Ah, in the immortal words of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, "Tradition!" Nothing quite rings in the holidays (yours, mine or someone else's) like:

Tradition! The time we eat our meal.

Tradition! The family with whom we eat our meal.

Tradition! The types of side dishes we do or do not serve at our meal.

Tradition! The tensions and stress that invariably follow!

I'll let you in on a little secret: Tradition can be highly overrated. Sometimes you just have to shake things up a bit. Or at the very least, be willing to relax some of those "that's the way it's always been done," rules in a concerted effort to make the traditions we keep joyful, meaningful and doable. (Imagine that!)

(...) As you go into the holidays with your laundry list and ideals wrapped in traditional expectation, slow down long enough to examine them and ask yourself the following questions:

Is this tradition moving my family closer to a holiday memory filled with joy?

Is this tradition adding meaning to our holiday?

Is this tradition doable, given our current situation, circumstances or family dynamics?

If you answer "No" to any of the above questions, be bold! Be brave! Be tough! And chuck what's hindering those things from happening. And if 3 p.m. is the hour of choice for Thanksgiving dinner, suggest another time such as 9 a.m. and serve turkey sausage for breakfast.

Traditions are useless if they don't support quality time with the people we love.

That's why I become restless as major holidays approach... My family is going to be in social situations where everyone will expect us to act in predictable and traditional ways which, for my Dad and the rest of us, is no longer possible.

I'm eager to establish new traditions for my family, ones that work for us and draw us together, ones that can be accepted and understood by anyone who happens to observe us or join us along the way. I want my parents to be at ease, and I want our loved ones and acquaintances to be at ease as well.

I'm not sure how to get us started in the right direction though. We still feel obligated to fit our new family dynamics into traditional molds. How do we get out from under our self-imposed pressure to conform? How can we start fresh traditions without feeling guilty about leaving other treasured customs behind? How can we invite others along with us on this new journey? If you happen to have any ideas, we sure could use them!


Get Julie Barnhil's full article