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Christmas with Alzheimer’s

Christmas with Alzheimer’s:

What my father’s dementia taught me about celebrating the season

December 19, 2012

By Colleen Carroll Campbell


For anyone already frazzled by the demands of this time of year, a visit with an Alzheimer’s-afflicted relative can upend holiday expectations and drive stress levels into the stratosphere. I know: My father was diagnosed with the disease during my last semester of college and I spent a dozen Christmases – and countless ordinary days in between – confronting signs of his painful decline.


Christmas always had been special to Dad, a man of deep faith who married later in life but embraced his husband and father roles with gusto. Growing up, I saw Dad outfit our home each December with a mangled array of rainbow-hued lights, stay up past midnight every Christmas Eve assembling toys he had window-shopped for weeks, then pop up again at dawn to cheer my brother and me as we tore through our gifts on our way to Christmas Mass. Dad loved his family and loved his Catholic faith. And the two combined made him love Christmas.


Christmases after Alzheimer’s were different. At first, the differences were all I could see. I grieved to see how my once-brilliant father now struggled to follow fast-moving conversations between my mother, brother and me; how his gifts had become simpler and more haphazard – a tiny porcelain rose here, a scrawled greeting card there; and how the masterful Irish storyteller who once dominated our gatherings now smiled blankly while we swapped memories he recalled only vaguely, if at all.


Despite his losses, though, Dad still could brighten our holiday celebrations. I did not recognize or fully embrace that truth right away. But the first intimation of it came shortly after Dad’s diagnosis, when I discovered the writings of one of his favorite saints: Thérèse of Lisieux.


A 19th-century French nun whose posthumously published Story of a Soul became a worldwide bestseller, Thérèse articulated a spirituality of childlike trust based on Jesus’ command in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt 19:14) Thérèse’s “little way of spiritual childhood,” as it became known, allowed her to see grace at work in a trial I knew well: a beloved parent’s descent into dementia.


Shortly after Thérèse entered the convent, her father suffered a series of paralytic strokes that led to hallucinations, memory lapses, slurred speech and even confinement in a mental institution. She agonized over his suffering and wept privately over his condition.


Yet Thérèse found meaning in his ordeal. She saw her father’s escalating dependence as an avenue to greater intimacy with his loved ones and God. She noticed him losing interest in earthly things and saw God “flooding him with consolations” even as he lost his status and possessions – a purification process that she believed God was allowing to make her father more like the suffering Christ.


For Thérèse, her father’s trial ended not in tragedy but triumph: union with God after a long process of becoming the kind of childlike follower that Jesus extols in the Gospels. She believed that his losses and humiliations had refined his soul and made him someone to be admired, not pitied – a man, she said, whose sufferings prepared him for an eternity “crowned with glory.”


Thérèse’s perspective challenged and changed my own. I began to notice signs in my father of the same transformation she had seen in hers: a gradual increase of faith, hope and love amid his cognitive decline. I realized that Dad’s irrepressible joy – undimmed by Alzheimer’s and particularly apparent during the holidays – could be a Christmas gift all its own, if I could see the season through his eyes and celebrate it at his pace.


Like many Alzheimer’s patients, Dad excelled at the practice of the present moment. He savored with childlike delight the simple holiday joys: twinkling lights, cheery carols, chipper greetings from shopping-mall Santas and the transcendent beauty of Christmas liturgies. His contagious mirth, repeated reminders to me that “we’re all in God’s hands” and heightened sensitivity to people during a season too often fixated on things made him an oasis of peace during the chaotic holidays. And Dad’s luminous faith amid his humiliations spoke to me of the true miracle of Christmas: that God chose to manifest himself to us not in power and glory, but in weakness and utter dependence.


Such insights did not erase the agony of Alzheimer’s for Dad or me. But they made it easier to bear, especially during the holidays. And since Dad’s death four years ago, I have found myself missing him at Christmas. I miss not only the clever and robust father of my childhood, but also the gentler and weaker one I knew as an adult – the one who brought holiday comfort and cheer even amid the ravages of Alzheimer’s.


Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, journalist, former presidential speechwriter and television host of EWTN’s “Faith & Culture.” Her new book is My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir (Image/Random House) and her website is

Colleen Carroll Campbell
  • Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, print and broadcast journalist and former presidential speechwriter. Her books include her critically acclaimed journalistic study, The New Faithful, and her award-winning spiritual memoir, My Sisters the Saints, which has been published in Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and as an audiobook. Colleen's journalism credits include contributions to the New York Times, Washington Post, Christianity Today, First Things and America, and appearances on CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, ABC News, PBS and NPR. She has served as executive producer and anchor of EWTN News Nightly with Colleen Carroll Campbell, a television newscast airing worldwide on EWTN, the world’s largest religious media network, and as creator and host of EWTN’s Faith & Culture television and radio interview show. In 2013, she anchored EWTN’s live television coverage of the historic election and installation of Pope Francis in Rome. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and editorial writer and op-ed columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Colleen is the recipient of two honorary doctorates and numerous other awards for her work. She serves as a religious liberty consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and speaks to audiences across North America and Europe. Colleen lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children, whom she homeschools. Her website is

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