We humans spend lifetimes keeping up traditions built around home and family. But what happens when your home and family are no more?
In this morning’s Sense of Community segment on local traditions, we’re transporting you to the annual holiday party in the Kabul Nursing Home in Cabool, Missouri. It takes place each year about a week before Christmas.
Four rows of residents, all in wheelchairs or scooters, are watching staff members act out The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Lorrie Ebert, the director of nursing, says at least half of the 47 residents here have moderate to severe memory loss due to Alzheimer’s Disease or other types of dementia.
“We have, probably, thirty or forty percent that have family that doesn’t come during this time of of year. And it’s important that they realize that we all feel they’re very important,” Ebert said.
Even when residents no longer recall the names of their family members, Ebert says there’s one figure they tend to recognize at this event.
“You should see their face when they see Santa. That right there says it all to me. They know who Santa is. They know what Santa’s all about,” Ebert said.
On this day, Santa and Mrs. Claus are handing out gifts.
And most residents sing along to the classic holiday carols.
Traditions like this one comfort the residents, Ebert says, even after the peripheral details of memory grow hazy. She reads the Christmas story from The Bible.
“I’ll soon be 89 years old,” said Pauline Northcutt, whose memory still serves her well.
She taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Alice, Missouri, near the incorporated community of Bendavis in rural Texas County. And she can still recall in vivid detail past Christmas traditions, including a necklace she got in the 1930s. She was about six years old, she said.
“And it had three little pink elephants. And that was the best Christmas I ever had. I know that necklace came from the dime store, but it was really something. And my sister got one just like it, only her elephants were blue. So naturally, I thought mine was the prettiest,” Northcutt said.
She remembers the smells and tastes from her mother’s kitchen.
“We always had mushroom soup, with pork chops smothered in mushroom soup. That was one of my favorites. Brown beans. And, oh, just different things,” Northcutt said.
Her mother made the pies, and her favorite was mince meat.
“And good mince meat. But you know, hon, this that you buy is not like homemade mincemeat,” Northcutt said.
As an adult, Northcutt’s tradition was to make a nice meal with her husband, Ken, a WWII veteran of the Navy.
“That seems like such a short time ago, though. I miss him so much. We had about 60 years of real good marriage,” she said.
“This sounds boastful, but we built a new home. I had a new home, and new furniture. And of course had to have an estate sale. And everything went just like hotcakes. That’s what sad. When you give up all you’ve worked on, you know? But I think God gives us precious memories,” she said.
Even so, she acknowledges that even those memories, which are really all she has left, are fading.
“It’s hard for me to remember years and days and months, how long Ken’s been gone, and how long my parents have been gone. I’ve lost all my family members. And I can tell my memory is slipping,” Northcutt said.
The couple didn’t have children, and her husband passed away a few years ago.
So her traditions are all here now--like this holiday party.
Her therapist tells her to attend these activities as a way to keep grounded, to keep her mind sharp.
“And I figure I’m going to live here the rest of my life. I’ve lost all my family. So Christmas, I’ve enjoyed this,” Northcutt said.
And Lorrie Ebert says they’re starting new traditions. Like the memory tree, an evergreen in the lobby.
“The residents that pass away throughout the year, we put their names on an ornament and have a memorial service the first Friday of December,” Ebert said.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it may comfort a loved one with dementia to build on past traditions and memories, like signing old carols, watching a familiar holiday movie, or browsing through old photo albums together.
The Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline number is 1-800-272-3900 and the organization's website is www.alz.org.