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The Pinecone Award

Susan Frick | 18 February 2021

It all started with a pinecone.

At one of our weekly Without Warning Zoom caregiver support group meetings, a discussion began about the stress of trying to do so much for their person with dementia. These caregivers all shared the immense daily tasks they needed to monitor and complete for their person. And, these caregivers also talked about how they often feel guilt and sadness for falling short of their expectations.

As they were talking, one of the caregivers got up quickly and left her computer. She came back after helping her husband with dementia and shared that as everyone was talking about how hard it is to keep an eye on everything, her husband began to eat a pinecone. She didn’t realize he had picked up one on their morning walk and had it in his pocket. As she looked over, she saw him holding it in his hand and taking a bite. Her story caused much head shaking and laughter because each of the caregivers could relate. Even though it might not have been a pinecone for them, they each knew completely what this wife just experienced.

Her husband was fine, but this event was a perfect reminder of how hard life is for a caregiver and how each of them had to learn to forgive themselves for moments that didn’t go as planned.

Throughout the next weeks and months, at our caregiver meeting, one of the caregivers would give “The Pinecone Award” to another. He would pick a person who needed a reminder that it was ok when life didn’t go as expected. He would pick a person who needed a reminder that forgiving oneself isn’t always easy but necessary. Having “The Pinecone Award” became a bonding experience for the group. It was a way to laugh and sometimes cry together over those difficult caregiving moments.

As a dementia support group facilitator, we need to help our caregivers realize they will inevitably have their own pinecone moments. Of course, we must help caregivers determine and respond to safety concerns. But we also must help our caregivers see that they will have moments when life doesn’t go as expected no matter how hard they try. There will be moments when they feel they have fallen short. As leaders we need to help them find the humor and forgiveness. We need to encourage our group members to share their own moments to develop community and the realization that they are not alone.

It might have started with a pinecone, but it continues with so much more.

Susan Frick, MSW, LSW, is the Director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center Without Warning program