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These elderly women with dementia are reinventing themselves to enjoy Christmas with their loved ones

“It takes a lot of planning, and I wasn’t up for the task", said Groves.

These elderly women with dementia are reinventing themselves to enjoy Christmas with their loved ones
Cover Image Source: YouTube/TODAY

Holiday get-togethers with the family are customary at Betsy Groves' house. The 73-year-old woman from Massachusetts organized, prepared, and managed Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts for her husband Tim, their grown children and spouses, as well as their grandkids. She loved playing the part, which she unwillingly gave up last year after receiving an Alzheimer's disease diagnosis. This Christmas, Groves' husband and their children are in charge. “It was hard letting go and letting others supervise,” she tells TODAY. “It takes a lot of planning, and I wasn’t up for the task.”


In her late 60s, Groves first became aware of cognitive abnormalities. At that time, she was a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, where she taught courses on early childhood mental health and development. As she prepared her lectures, she says, "I felt I was not as sharp and on my toes in classroom discussions, and I started becoming anxious." She expressed her worries to her primary care physician, who gave her the all-clear. "She reminded me that my years of higher education would help shield me from cognitive decline and that memory loss was a normal part of aging." While she respected her doctor, she had the impression that something was wrong. She spoke with a medical professional acquaintance, who arranged for her to get a neuropsychological evaluation.

These testing revealed that the patient had Alzheimer's disease. Groves was taken aback. She felt numb and overwhelmed with the prospect of telling her two kids, siblings, and other family members about her condition. “Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s was my worst fear,” she says. “I was worried that my diagnosis would change how people saw me and how they treated me.” She needed support, so she went to the Alzheimer's Association, where she met with a social worker who assisted her in processing what was going on. Her husband and she informed relatives and close friends of her condition. “My fears that people would treat me differently were unfounded,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have a strong support system in place. And having my family know my wishes will guide them as my disease progresses.”


She and her husband met with an elder law attorney after speaking with relatives and friends to update legal and financial paperwork. She found the procedure to be sad. “It was a major eye opener to see my name removed from long-standing legal documents that we had in place for our future,” she adds. Despite her illness, Christmas is a happy time for her since it brings her family together. “If I feel overwhelmed or tired, I can retreat to the bedroom,” she says. “Everyone understands.” She also got support from other dementia patients at the 2022-2023 National Early-Stage Advisory Group, of which she is a member. It was here that she met Reda Harrison, 62, who was diagnosed with moderate cognitive impairment (MCI) four years ago.



Harrison, like Groves, relished being in charge of holiday feasts.  “My biggest problem (now) is a lack of organizational skills,” she says. “It’s hard for me to plan and get everything cooked at the same time like I used to. My husband’s helping and my children are bringing the rest of the meal.” Another change is that dinner will be served earlier in the day, and visitors will be expected to leave by 5 p.m. “ I have trouble processing information at the end of the day,” she says. She spent over 30 years at the University of Kentucky in numerous areas. When the problem deteriorated, she requested an evaluation at the university's neurology clinic. Dementia was the diagnosis. Retirement, however, has not slowed her down. In reality, she is training Dolly, her standard poodle named after Dolly Parton, to be her service dog. “Despite my diagnosis, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been,” she says. 

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