The author with her mother, Judy
The author with her mother, Judy

Even with advanced dementia, my mother could feel moments of joy. I will always feel grateful that we gathered to celebrate her life not after she passed away, but while she was alive and could enjoy being the center of attention. 

My mother, Judy, told me years ago that when she passed away she wanted me to cremate her and to hold a “life celebration,” not a funeral—a party with family and friends. She pictured us at her lakeside home, reminiscing and laughing. We would spread her ashes on the waves, then talk and eat.

As Mom’s dementia progressed, I remembered her wishes, and fully intended to follow them. But sadly, when she ran out of savings we had to sell the cottage to help pay for her memory care assisted living facility. What remained were my visits with her, a handful of friends who still visited, and the loving staff in her facilities. I decided that what was most important was not a life celebration after she passed away, but the quality of her life from day to day.

On the other hand, I still felt Mom deserved a party.

In 2010, when Mom had to move into a nursing home, I planned a small gathering for her 78th birthday. On the invitations, I wrote, “Though she’s living with advanced dementia, Mom will delight in your presence. Years ago she wanted a celebration of her life after she passed, but we’re sharing our love and affection for her now while she can enjoy it.” I suspected that by the following year Mom might be much less responsive (and mostly I was right). The time was ripe.

Few members of Mom’s family remained—her brother from out of state, and her young step-mother—but they came, and my husband and teenage children were there. Some of Mom’s favorite neighbors from the lake joined us, and two women who visited her every week came as well—the aide from the memory care facility I hired to visit Mom in the nursing home (they really enjoyed each other’s company), and the massage therapist I also hired to visit Mom weekly, a woman who often read to Mom and took her outside. (These women were “paid” friends, but to Mom they were special companions. Even when she couldn’t speak or remember their names, she seemed happy to see them.) I sent an invitation to the directors of the two assisted living facilities where Mom had lived, to invite any staff who might like to see Mom. The only staff member who came was a dining room worker from the first facility, a man who always seemed to enjoy my mother. He brought his wife, and it felt lovely to think that someone at Mom’s first assisted living facility remembered her fondly.

The author's mother, Judy
The author’s mother, Judy

My husband and I cooked the meal. I baked Mom’s favorite angel food cake—the kind she used to make for my birthdays—and we invited all of the nursing home staff to join us. I displayed photos of my mother and her family, and the staff came down to eat the food and study the captions under the photographs. I don’t think the staff were invited to join family celebrations very often, and I think they enjoyed learning more about my mother as a person. Throughout the party, a harpist in the corner played “Clair de Lune” and other of my mother’s favorite pieces.

It was a small, serene party, and though she said little, Mom held people’s hands, smiled, and locked onto their eyes with hers. She listened closely and laughed right on cue. I’m not sure which guests she recognized and remembered, but that was okay.

I felt happy that the people who hadn’t seen Mom in years had a chance to feel her spirit once again, to see that she was still “in there” despite the dementia. Everyone seemed profoundly moved by her smile and her shining eyes.

When Mom finally passed away last year, a few days after Thanksgiving, my instinct was to honor her with another celebration of her life, or at least a service of some sort. It seemed wrong to not do so.  I went ahead and reserved a church and started planning. As it became clear that the same people who would travel to a funeral were the same people who already came to the birthday “life celebration,” I cancelled the reservation. All of us—Mom, me, my family, our relatives, Mom’s friends, and her care partners—had already shared what Mom had envisioned. What remained was to say “good-bye”—and her party served that purpose for most of the guests.

For me and my husband and children, saying good-bye meant hiking down the steep, shale road to the lake to slip Mom’s ashes into the water by our old cottage. We said a few words, and I pictured Mom happy to be reunited at last with her beloved lake. But what I will always remember is not the feeling of mourning her death, but the look on her face at that party. Even with advanced dementia, it was clear that Mom could feel moments of joy. I will always feel grateful that she had the opportunity to enjoy this day of transcendence, to be the center of attention and to feel everyone’s love, when she was still with us.


  1. Cynthia

    Dear Martha,

    What a wonderful testament to your Mom, Martha. I appreciate how you celebrated your Mom’s life while she was living. I am continuing to do the same with my Mom during her remaining lifetime. I so appreciate your blogs; they are very helpful, inspiring, and uplifting. Thank you for sharing your journey with your Mom with us. Kind Regards, Cynthia

  2. Elaine Mansfield

    What lovely thoughtful ways you helped your mom, Martha. And I love the quiet ritual of slipping and sliding down into the lower realms near the lake to slip her ashes into the place she called home.

  3. Ann

    What a lovely story, Martha, and a beautiful memory. I’m glad your mom got to share in the celebration of her life…

    I so hope that someday we can lessen the stigma and fear that seem to run rampant in people’s minds – if only they’d visit once, I think most would find that it’s really not that scary. Our loved ones are “still in there” and the experience of spending time with them is so profound – even in the later stages.

    While my mom was at Eason House, one of her dearest friends came up from Florida for a visit. She later shared with me how apprehensive she was leading up to the trip, but afterward said she was so thankful she had come. She said that while it wasn’t the Marilyn she knew years ago, it was still Marilyn. In a way, it was like meeting a beautiful new friend.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and helping to educate the world…

  4. Martha Stettinius

    Thank you Ann, Elaine and Cynthia. I know what you mean, Ann, about Mom’s old friends feeling apprehensive about visiting. There is such fear. I used to feel the same way when I was around people with dementia. Now I’m looking forward to being a “certified” pet therapy visitor to another nursing home in town, to sharing my little dog with the residents and quietly enjoying their pleasure in his company. So often, it really is about slowing down and enjoying the little things. Thanks again for writing, everyone!

  5. Marci Benson

    Thank you for a meaningful article. We recently had a family birthday party to honor my Mom on her 85th birthday. She did have many moments of joy. It is very easy to get discouraged when one week later she has no memory of the big party. We must always remember it is the moments of joy that is the important part & we should not expect them to be able to remember the day, no matter how special it was at the time. They cannot control what they can remember, but it is still important to keep bringing on those moments of joy in whatever way we can! It’s about their happiness, not our feeling that if it’s special enough they will surely remember the event.

    • Martha Stettinius

      I love your perspective on this, Marci, that it’s important to help create those moments of joy even if a person with advanced dementia won’t remember them. I think that the positive emotions, if not the details, stay with them for some time. And happy birthday to your Mom! 🙂

  6. Lady-Links

    Feeling moments of joy is so important for those with dementia as you stated in your post. What a great focus for your mom’s 78th birthday party. At a recent birthday party for our friend with Alzheimer’s dementia, our group, the Lady-Links, focused on just how to do that and came up with some tips for celebrating. You can find our “Significant yet Simple” strategies and how they work in planning birthday parties for those with any type of cognitive impairment at

  7. Andrew Paschetto

    Dear Martha, Thank you for sharing your story. My own mom has advanced stroke-related dementia and will be turning 90(!) this August. She pretty much only recognizes my sister, but I want to celebrate her birthday. My sister says Mom still seems to enjoy company and visits, but tires quickly of struggling to communicate. I’m having difficulty trying to imagine right-sizing the party. When you say your gathering was “small”, about how many were present?
    Thanks, again.

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