Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Shopping With Dementia


My kids always get so excited at Christmas time. It goes without saying that they love to get presents. But they also love to GIVE presents. It is so hard for them to contain their excitement and patiently wait for us to open up whatever Christmas surprise they come up with for us. And we never know what we will get. One year, my daughter made me a necklace of mismatched beads on a strand of yarn. Every single day for 2 entire weeks before Christmas, she begged me to open it. She just knew it was a gift I would love! I wore it with pride. Many times, the kids will find treasures from their room that they will wrap up and give to us as gifts (I have a few of those under my tree right now!) I love their sweet innocence and the pride they have when they give us these gifts from the heart.

Last year, I went shopping with my mom to help her pick out Christmas gifts for all of the grandkids. She has always been great at picking out gifts on her own, but for obvious reasons she needed a little extra help. This year, she hasn't said much about gifts at all with the exception of once or twice when she told me "I need you to tell me what your children might like for Christmas." I knew it would be difficult for her to understand and pick out gifts on her own, even if I made a list and even if I was there with her. So last week, I took my dad (instead) shopping for Christmas presents for all of the grandkids and other family members.

As I wrapped and placed all of the presents under their tree, I realized that one person did not have any gifts under the tree: my dad. All of us kids got presents for dad, but for the first time I can remember, mom hadn't picked anything out for him.

Not that dad would care; he has always been the kind to think of others and never himself. Whenever we ask what he wants for Christmas, his reply is always the same,

"I don't need anything. Save it for the kids; it's about them."

Yesterday, when I was over at my mom's for the day, I asked her what she had gotten for dad for Christmas. She said that she had gone out shopping with my Aunt Claudia and got him something...I hate to write what it is, in case my dad did not follow directions and is reading this blog! But suffice it to say that it is something she buys frequently, which he would wear, so it is somewhat "routine" for her. I suggested we go out after lunch to Kmart (we didn't have much time between lunchtime and naptime to go anywhere father than Kmart, which is up the street) to pick out a few more things for dad. Surprisingly, she agreed.

I felt good; I was happy that I was able to convince her to get out and help her shop for dad! I didn't know how this would go, but I figured I would be able to find some things that I knew dad would like and be able to influence her on what to get.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

As we walked in the store, mom decided we should walk through every aisle and see what was there that he might like. We started at the beginning; although mom decided we could skip the card aisle because she didn't need to get him one of those. In the middle of the walkways were displays of colognes and body gels. I asked her if she thought he might like some cologne. It took me a couple of times of asking her before it registered to her that I was talking.

"Huh? Colo-what? I don't know what that is. I don't know what you're saying about that."

I explained to her that it was the stuff you put on your body to make it smell good. She buys her body fragrances at Bath & Body Works...would she like to get dad some fragrances for himself? I pointed out sets of aftershave, gel and cologne. She seemed to look through what I was pointing at and instead of answering or acknowledging me, continued her search on the shelf for something more familiar to her that he would like.

We made our way to the candy section, where there were several displays of holiday treats. Mom kept talking about "that one kind of candy thing" that dad always liked. I asked her to tell me what it looked like, what is tasted like as I tried to figure out what she was talking about, but to no avail. She knew there was something that dad liked, but she couldn't quite figure out what that was. I picked up a box of Good 'n Plenty candies along with a box of Jujifruits. Those of 2 of dad's favorites; surely mom would recognize those! As I held them in front of her, she squinted her eyes and shook her head as she stuttered,

"No, no I'm not getting him that. I don't know what that is...I don't know that he would like that...I've never known that he likes that...that's not familiar to me..."

Despite my attempts to assure her that these were dad's favorites and that they would be perfect for his stocking, mom could not be convinced. I let out a sigh as I tossed the boxes of candies in my cart; if I had to buy them myself, dad would have them for his stocking.

As we continued aisle after aisle of candy and food, we ran into the sausage displays. This was sure to spark her memory! I remember every year, growing up, mom would buy dad some sausage for his stocking. She remembers the past so well...I was sure she'd know to buy him the sausage. Mom did not recognize what I was showing her.

"Mom, you used to buy this every year for dad...he loves it! He would love it if you got it for him. You could wrap it and put it under the tree," I said, over and over.

It was as if I wasn't even talking. She plugged along down the next aisle, me following behind, waving the sausage at her, when she suddenly stopped in front of the display of Goldfish crackers.

"He really likes these fishy things too, he eats them with all the kids too. He would like this," she said, as she tried to make a choice between regular flavor, or extra cheddar. I couldn't help but to chuckle.

"You want to get him goldfish crackers for Christmas?" I asked with amusement.

"Yeah he would really like it, he really likes them," she said, as she tossed them into the cart.

"What else do you want to get for him, mom?" I asked, as she led me through the next aisle. We were heading towards the household cleaning products; surely there was nothing up for gift considerations and we could pass through those aisles. I tried to redirect her down another path and turned to make my way towards the right section of the store.

But mom is fast. I turned around and she was gone. I knew she couldn't have gone far. I called her name, in vain, because she didn't answer me. I found her in the laundry detergent aisle, seemingly intent on something.

"They don't have that kind-the kind for the special kind that I have to buy...with those letters on it."

I knew what she meant. I led her to the other side of the aisle where the Gain 'he' (high efficiency) detergent sat on the shelves. She became excited and declared,

"Oh yes, oh good, they have it. Your dad really likes this one so much 'cuz it washes his work clothes so good too."

I wrinkled my eyebrows and looked at her as I tried to make sense of what she was saying.

"Mom, you don't mean that you are getting that for dad for Christmas, do you?"


I rephrased the question,

"Mom, is that what you want to get dad for a Christmas present?"

"Yes I am, this is what he likes. I know he'll really like this too 'cuz it washes his clothes so good."

I tried to reason with her and suggest that you don't buy your husband a bottle of laundry detergent for Christmas. But mom would hear no reason. She was adamant that dad would love to receive laundry detergent for Christmas.

As she put the detergent in the cart, and we walked around the store a little more, I found a couple other things (in addition to his favorite candies) that I put into the cart, with several attempts at explaining why she should get these particular items for dad (mostly because it was something that I knew he would like). The answers were always the same,

"No, I'm not gonna get that, no. I don't know what that is...I'm confused at what that is...I don't know that he would like that."

She tried explaining to me something else that she wanted to add to his gifts.

"Those things you use, you put in the thing at the computer that you...with your hand," she explained, wiggling her hands in the air, "that you use with computer things too to make it work...you put it in things to make it work, your dad always needs those things too..."

Somehow I figured out that she was describing batteries. She wanted to get dad batteries. We walked around the store, looking for a section with batteries and before I could catch up with her, she ran ahead to the man behind the cash register in electronics (who was helping another lady check out) and tried to explain the things she was looking for. He looked very confused, as did the lady checking out, and as I approached my mom, I gently put my arm around her and explained to the cashier that she was looking for batteries. He looked at her and in some detail told her exactly where to go to find batteries. Mom hastily interrupted him and said,

"What? Register 10, what? I'm confused at what you're talking about, my brain is so stupid. Because of that surgery which left my brain stupid, I don't know what you're saying."

It always chokes me up to hear her call herself stupid and watch her struggle to realize that she cannot comprehend what others are telling her. I patted her back and told her it was okay, I knew where the batteries were. I led her to the front of the store, to Register 10, where we picked out a pack of batteries and took our place in line.

As we checked out with the cashier at the end of a very long hour, I was able to sneak the candy and another little item in with her selected gifts, with the intention of her using them for stocking stuffers. I was fully prepared to buy them myself if she threw a fit, but after much fuss she finally agreed on adding those 3 small things, with the condition that,

"Well then I'm gonna tell him when he opens it that you told me to get it, 'cuz I don't know that he likes that stuff."

I just laughed and said, "Okay mom, you can blame it all on me."

We drove home at 1:12 (which, she made sure to remind me, was way past her naptime) and went into the house where she immediately dumped the batteries, goldfishies, candy, and the other small item, into a gift bag which was behind the tree. (It also had the other gift she bought him the other day). She threw the plastic bag on top of the items, folded the top of the bag over in half, and stuffed it behind the Christmas tree. I reminded her that the candy was for his stocking, to which she replied,

"What? Stocking, what? I don't know what you're saying, stocking."

I let it go. It wasn't important anyway. What was important was that she had found him a gift. Maybe it's a bottle of laundry detergent and a pack of batteries. But they were gifts that she picked out, that she felt he would love. I'm not sure how he will react when he opens up his gifts. He might laugh. He might cry. He might do both. I know I certainly felt both reactions. But I also marvel at the childlike innocence that my mom possesses. It was a humbling reminder to me that Christmas is not about the fancy gifts or the shiny red bows. Christmas is about giving from the heart. My mom with dementia helped me to remember that this Christmas season.


  1. love you girl. your big uncle from up north

  2. Today I asked her what she bought yesterday when she told me she went shopping with you. She said she bought "some of those things you put in things to make them work better". How I figured out she was talking about batteries still baffles me. But, I did guess right. I never picked up on the fact they were supposed to be a gift.

    I can't figure out why, but today she was very muted in her speech, and seemed so uninterested in conversing. Most of the things I tried to talk to her about she could not grasp. I had to ask her the same question two or three times before I could get her to even acknowledge I was talking to her. Usually she doesn't answer because she is lost in her mind somewhere. I have to call her name several times to bring her back to the conversation. Then suddenly she'll burst into an endless, long-winded talk about something totally unrelated; usually a story or incident from the past, or about someone at church that looks like Ellen or Claudia.

    1. I am imagining her as you're telling me this. I know exactly what you are saying. Lately, she seems more in her own little world and she doesn't hear much of what we say. It can be frustrating, but I try to just be patient and remind myself it's not her fault.

    2. The hardest part is the unreciprocated affection. Last time I was there I tried to give her a big hug, as she usually likes to do. It was like hugging a post; with her arms stiff at her side, she made no attempted to return the embrace. I've noticed lately she is not affectionate towards me and no longer asks me if I still love her.

    3. I think she just does not know how to respond to affection these days. But just yesterday she was talking my ear off about how Tia Tina told her she likes to help her because she loves her and that she is glad you guys still love her even though she has changed.

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