This week the northern hemisphere celebrates the autumnal equinox and the beginning of the slow descent toward winter. This is the start of astrological fall; meteorological fall, which is based on average temperature cycles began on September first.
For many of us, it’s that early September date that represents the change of seasons. Especially for those of us who are caring for children, back-to-school is ingrained into our psyches as the time for a change of habits. We go to bed earlier, we dress differently even if the weather hasn’t cooled off appreciably, and we adjust our cooking and eating to include heavier, more robust dishes.
As caregivers, we must be aware that the people we support often react to the change of seasons with heightened emotions. When my grandmother was first sliding into dementia, the simple act of packing away her summer clothes and bringing out her warmer winter wardrobe would make her anxious. Where were her belongings going, and would she get them back?
The change in the light, and the subtle crispness in the air that exists even when the daily high temperature is still hot are also triggers. For me, that early autumn light is a creative boost. It may be because I was born in late August, so fall is the first season I really experienced, or it could just be that longer evenings allow me to revel in my nocturnal nature.
But for older people darkness coming earlier can lead to depression and anxiety. My grandmother developed a fear of the dark as she aged, so we made sure there was always a lamp within easy reach of her chair or bed. That way, she would never have to endure unwanted darkness or fumble around for a switch, and possibly trip or fall.
Other things we did – things all caregivers can do – to ease Grandma into autumn was to keep her involved in family activities. We solicited suggestions for meals and included her favorite flavors. By the time I was twenty-five, she no longer had the stamina to stand at the stove, but she could sit at the table and walk me through her most-loved recipes. Twenty-one years after her death, I still hear her voice in the back of my head whenever I make pasta e fagioli, the hearty, garlicky soup that was her signature dish.
As a lover of plants and all things natural, we made sure Grandma spent as much time as possible outside. We were fortunate to have a café within walking distance, so on weekends, to give my parents a break, I would bundle her into her wheelchair and take her out for a walk and coffee. Of course, we had to stop and greet every child and dog along the way, and of course that coffee was accompanied by ‘a little something’ – my grandmother never turned down a pastry or cookie. When it got too cold to walk as far as the café, or more usually, too wet, we’d have afternoon coffee on the patio, surrounded by fall flowers in my mother’s garden. Fresh air and sunshine cannot cure dementia, but watching the seasons change and enjoying the process helps avoid seasonal anxiety.
Fresh air, favorite foods, and small comfort measures may not seem like significant changes, but they help keep our beloved elders grounded in the moment and secure in their surroundings. The waning light of autumn doesn’t have to be something to fear; rather it can be turned into a condition we embrace.