The last of the 2017 Christmas gifts to be given has been delivered and the last of those received has been unwrapped. In dealing with both, I’ve been reflecting on one of the sweetest Christmas offerings my father-in-law, who has dementia, received during this season of giving. It came from Dan, one of the “boys” from the old neighborhood – a kid who lived on the next block over, but hung out with Pops’ sons and was something of a fixture at their house.
Dan is one of the few people outside the family who has continued to visit Pops since he moved to a memory-care residence two years ago. Just before Christmas, he simply did what he does from time to time. He stopped by to say hello. Whenever Dan visits, Pops lights up and bellows a cheery, “What the heck are you doing here?” This is partly because Dan conjures up happy memories for a 92-year-old guy who doesn’t always remember what he did five minutes ago, but recalls the name or face of someone who has been kind to him, who remembers to thank him on Veterans Day for his Navy service, or who once fixed his leaky faucet.
But Dan’s visits also bring joy because he has the right idea about giving to people like Pops. When he shows up, he does so with empty hands and a full heart. He seems to know intuitively that his presence and his time are the best things he has to offer, and the reception he gets says it’s so.
During the Christmas season, various veterans and church groups left several one-size-fits-all gifts in Pops’ room – a basket of toiletries with a small crocheted afghan, a Poinsettia, and a box with treats and a small religious statue. These were thoughtful gestures and welcome, comforting signs that Pops has not been forgotten. But when I see him respond to someone like Dan, I know that often the best gifts we can give a person in Pops’ circumstances are not necessarily material things, but time and quiet care.
Just as Pops has been giving us lessons through this dementia journey on how to be, he has been teaching us to let go of our ideas about gifts and learn a new form of generosity. Sadly, we can no longer give him the restaurant gift certificates and other material things that delighted him in years past, but we can reach inside ourselves and pull out our patient attentiveness and reassurance.
Sometimes, that doesn’t seem sufficient, and frankly, it can be a little unsettling. We wonder, “Can it really be enough?” Dan would say yes. When he visits Pops, he says, he leaves with as much as – or more than – he gave, knowing he gladdened a heart with the best present of all – his presence.