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Balancing Alzheimer’s Disease And Tradition: Passover Seder From A Distance

During this holiday season, when isolation and physical distance is required to combat COVID-19, we need to be mindful of prioritizing health and safety over group celebration. Families are acknowledging the reality of the risk of gathering as usual, and so they’re altering traditions as Passover and other holidays approach. We must limit the number of people around the table. But that doesn’t mean we have to be disconnected from others. 

This year one of the answers to the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” will be, “Because we’re not together.”  But in spite of the difference — or even because of it — the holidays this year can provide us with an especially rich opportunity to reflect on health and happiness, tradition and trust, bonds and boundaries, and to create new ways to connect. Here are some ideas:

1. Host a virtual Seder. This year families are using technology to extend their table. They are using Facetime or Zoom or finding other ways to host virtual Seders and to connect virtually with guests. Schedule a Zoom meeting or set up another visual conference call in advance and invite guests. Choose a portion of the passover Seder to share with your guests. Focus especially on the parts of the Seder that are interactive and include members from every generation.

2. To make your video conference successful, remember that this medium can be difficult for older people. Glitchy connections, audio lag, and too much motion can cause confusion. To prevent frustration, try these tips:

  • Set up the phone or computer in one place instead of holding it;
  • Explain to your loved one beforehand by phone what to expect. Tell them the experience will be something in between a taped recording and actually being there;
  • Ask people to take turns speaking, at least for a small part of the event; and
  •  Plan to have a phone call in addition to the streaming video so that your loved ones can more easily talk to one person at a time.

What could be more poignant than a feast that is all about memory when someone you love has dementia and is losing their own memories?

3. Dress up for the occasion.  It’s amazing how putting on dress shoes makes it feel like a real holiday.

4. Let traditional food inspire memories. Family recipes take memory to another level, as food has the power to transport someone back to favorite celebrations or traditions and bring back memories of relatives. If you have a loved one with cognitive decline in your home, have her join you in the kitchen to prepare favorite recipes, or just enjoy the hustle and bustle, sounds, and smells of a meal cooked with love. If helping in the kitchen is no longer possible or if your loved ones are far away, prepare and deliver your family’s traditional food to them.

5. Connect with the meaning of Passover. The Passover Seder is all about keeping the memory of the past alive by reenacting symbolically the events of Exodus. What could be more poignant than a feast that is all about memory when someone you love has dementia and is losing their own memories?

6. Be inclusive of all ages. Listen to the older generation share stories with the younger. And find a creative way to include children and grandparents who can’t be near in the Afikomen tradition.

The Passover Seder is about preserving memories through the generations. This tradition may be accessible to someone who has dementia in a way that more individual memories are not. Even those whose dementia makes them seem unresponsive may hear the familiar words of the Seder and experience the memories in the core of their hearts. And even if they are fully unaware of their surroundings, they are still present with us for the tradition, which transcends both time and individuality.