Finding Balance

Birthday Party Planning for Assisted Living

Born during a time before birth certificates became standardized, we didn’t know exactly what year in which Big Mama, my maternal grandmother, had been born. In 2009, we estimated that her age was somewhere between 94 and 98. We were only sure her birth date was November 26,  which made her the straight-shooting, feisty yet loveable Sagittarius we loved so fiercely. 

When she passed away peacefully on a balmy March night in Florida, it was a comfort to know that I’d spent her final birthday at her bedside. It had not been a big birthday celebration. Just my mother, aunt, a few cousins and I assembled in her room singing Stevie Wonder’s version of the Happy Birthday song before sitting with her for a spell to recall the woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother she’d been before her nearly 20-year descent into the latter stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

If you’re caring for an aging family member who is rapidly declining in health, it’s easy to get bogged down with the tedium of providing assistance in basic activities of daily living. It’s also just as easy to forget the reasons why you’re laboring so hard in the first place. Birthdays for an elderly adult in assisted living are an opportune occasion to remind us how very important the work we do is. Commemorating these annual events gives us the chance to re-examine the long history of memories and lessons our loved ones have shared with us and remember that the life you spend so much energy caring for is a life worth celebrating.

Birthday Celebrations are An Opportunity for Joy

Those simple moments we spent celebrating her 90-something year as our matriarch was a much-needed bright spot for all of us. It was especially cathartic for my aunt who had been Big Mama’s primary family caregiver and for my mother who annually took over to give my aunt a month-long respite. Once Big Mama’s health declined beyond my aunt’s and mother’s caregiving ability, they made the difficult decision to place her in an assisted living facility. They’d both wrestled with feelings of guilt, wondering if they’d made the right choice, questioning if they had somehow failed in their duties as loving and devoted children. They decided to have a small birthday party for Big Mama to express how much they cared for her.

As they shared their recollections of their mother at this gathering, they had the chance to reflect on the obstacles they had overcome in managing Big Mama’s care with a sense of joy and pride. They had not known the kind of catharsis or laughter such a modest birthday celebration would provide. They only understood that time with Big Mama was passing quickly and they wanted to commune with her even though she had lost the ability to speak and was rarely aware of her surroundings.

For an elderly parent who may have conditions that prevent them from leading the life they once knew, birthdays can be an opportune time to briefly delight in old celebratory customs. It can also add levity to an otherwise emotionally-heavy situation. 

Plan an Event Based on Your Loved One’s Desires   

If you’re considering planning a birthday celebration for an elderly parent in assisted living, first check with your loved one to gauge what kind of event they’d be most comfortable with. Some may want a large party with extended family and friends, while others may want to keep any birthday acknowledgments small and private. Either option can be equally heartwarming.

In our case, we based our decision to keep things simple on overall cost, time constraints, and Big Mama’s delicate state. We were recovering from additional costs related to the hospice care Big Mama received. And since Big Mama’s birthday fell on a Tuesday that year, it would have been difficult for many other family members to join us. Plus we didn’t want to make anyone feel obligated to send gifts that would go unused. We each brought bouquets of colorful and fragrant roses, lilies, mums, and daffodils to create a more festive mood, and then enjoyed the sanctuary we’d created in which we could quietly salute Big Mama.

The Ideal Celebration Can Take Place Within the Facility or Offsite

The most logical and sensible option for us was to gather those few of us who could attend to visit our bedridden relative. But many senior living facilities offer birthday celebrations for residents in the form of an individually-focused occasion or a monthly group event. 

If your loved one has a mobility concern, you can work with the facility management team to host a gathering in the private dining room or a community activity area. Conversely, if your mom or dad is more outgoing plan your birthday festivities accordingly. To learn more about social activities and other things to consider when selecting a senior living facility, check out this article

Another option is holding your event outside of the facility. Depending on your town or metropolitan area, you can choose from an array of venues including local senior centers, hotels, restaurants, and private event spaces. In Big Mama’s earlier stages of Alzheimer’s, we held a luau for her to bring Hawaii (one of her favorite vacation destinations) to her. The caterers and dancers we hired were amazing and the celebration’s menu was a delightful change from her usual diet. 

These Planning Tips Can Help Ensure a Smooth Celebration 

A successful party for an aging parent requires a bit more attention to such details as transportation requirements, accessibility, and dietary and budget considerations.

Transportation Coordination. For offsite events, if your senior living facility does not provide transportation services, be sure to hire and schedule private transport well in advance. Look for providers with wheelchair lifts that can accommodate party members with wheelchairs and walkers. You can also spice up the experience by requesting a themed party bus based on the birthday girl’s or boy’s favorite city or music genre. Other options include limousine service, rideshare or van rental. 

Readily Available Helping Hands. Be sure to recruit enough strong and able-bodied assistants to help elderly friends and relatives in and out of transportation. Unless your transportation provider specifically offers this amenity, drivers may not be willing or allowed to assist your guests in that way.

Wheelchair and Walker Accessibility. Before your party arrives at their destination, you’ll also want to ensure that the restaurant or event space and its features are accessible to any and all guests with wheelchairs or walkers. If there are many attendees with mobility challenges, it’s best to avoid venues with buffet lines or hard-to-reach restrooms. 

Special Diets, Food Allergies, and Food Sensitivities. Depending on your senior adult guests’ conditions and medication regimens, certain menu items can be problematic and even dangerous. Please take care to make a complete attendee list and collect information on any restrictions your attendees may have so that you may select a restaurant or menu that can provide options to satisfy all guests in question. Though your senior living facility’s nurse or nutrition director may not be able to provide specifics on individual diet restrictions, they can certainly relay advice on general accommodations you can make.

Senior Discounts and Specials.  It never hurts to mention to a prospective venue your intent to throw a celebration for senior citizens.  Many museums, theaters, restaurants, and attractions offer ongoing senior discounts or special senior citizen days to deliver great deals on their offerings. Still, others may give you a price reduction with your mention or advise on optimal days and times to save the most on your shindig. If your special guest of honor is a military veteran, be sure to note that as well as veterans also tend to receive special discounted pricing.

Saving the Date. Should you opt to hold your birthday party in your senior living facility’s common area, do make arrangements with the facility’s activities coordinator. Discussing your plans as early as possible will allow you time to take advantage of any available onsite catering services offered, save on tableware and serving articles should you bring outside food, and avoid running afoul of any restrictions on beer, wine or liquor. 

Don’t Forgetthe Point is For Everyone (Including You) to Enjoy Themselves

As you consider plans to commemorate your parent’s birthday, yes, it is absolutely important that the focus be on your mother or father but never at the expense of your own mental balance. Check out these time management tips for family caregivers if 24 hours in one day doesn’t seem like enough. 

Birthdays are meant to be a break from life’s daily grind to recognize and appreciate how far we’ve come together while also providing the opportunity to set positive intentions for the days ahead. Birthdays are also a reminder of who and what is most important in life: happiness, health and family. This is why it is just as important to do a self check-in as it is to speak with your parent about what his or her birthday wishes are. If your gut is telling you that you don’t have the capacity to turn out a big birthday blitz, trust it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if and when you need it. Finally, be willing to extend yourself grace in falling short of “perfection” because there really is no such thing. 

All in all, celebrating the birthday of your aging loved one can go a long way to brighten a dark situation. With careful planning and thoughtful consideration, you’ll also be able to weather any mishaps or unexpected challenges and avoid getting stressed out with event execution. What matters most, come what may, is that you, your loved one, and your party are able to enjoy a safe and memorable event on your terms where you are all free to revel in love, life, and family.

Enjoy the journey.