[WATCH] Elderly recall the good times of Christmas past

MaltaToday joined a reminiscence class lead by Maria Pace from the Lifelong Learning Centre with 12 of Casa Antonia’s residents to discuss Christmas in the past

MaltaToday joined a Reminiscence class lead by Maria Pace from the Life Long Lifelong Learning Centre with twelve of Casa Antonia’s residents to discuss Christmas in the past
MaltaToday joined a Reminiscence class lead by Maria Pace from the Life Long Lifelong Learning Centre with twelve of Casa Antonia’s residents to discuss Christmas in the past
Helping others recall memories of a happy Christmas alleviates loneliness

This particular ‘class’ is doing some Christmas revision…

Inside Casa Antonia nursing and residential home, Maria Pace from the Lifelong Learning Centre is asking residents to step back in time and remember the spirit of Christmas past.

Reminiscence, the volitional or non-volitional act or process of gathering memories of oneself in the past, is just one of the therapeutic classes that residents at Casa Antonia enjoy in the run-up to Christmas.

It involves the recalling and re-experiencing of one’s life events, and although sometimes requiring a good memory, a meaningful reminisce processes is dependent on how meaningful those memories are.

These Reminiscence classes and or/ therapy are common practices in nursing homes, where they use techniques to draw out important events and meaningful memories using historical material from an individual’s past. 

And for many reasons, Christmastime can be a difficult time for the elderly who are more susceptible to loneliness around this time of the year, with these feelings sometimes eclipsing the expected glee.

“So what is one word that describes Christmas for you,” Pace asks the group of 12 participants.

Instantly, one of the residents exclaims “Gulbiena!” – or vetches – which when light-deprived, grow white and stringy and are often used for crafts to decorate houses at Christmas.

Other words were thrown around the table, like decorations, roast turkey, gifts, the nativity, Christmas cakes, the infant Jesus and the crib, and a handful of other words all said with a level of optimism and excitement.

“The question is used to encourage the residents to begin to open up about their own experiences at Christmastime,” Pace told MaltaToday.

Studies such as those conducted by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence show that reminiscence therapy can improve the mental health of elderly individuals – who as they grow older, especially in the cases of those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia, who fear losing their identity.

When asked to dive into their memories one resident recounted about her late husband and the voluntary work he used to do for the local council every year. “My husband used to dress up as Father Christmas every year for the local council and he went around on a cart and distributed presents to the children… and for years my children didn’t know it was their father, not even our grandchildren knew.”

Another resident spoke about how her brothers once won a competition for the best crib. “Every year there used to be a competition for the best crib in our locality and one time my brothers won the competition!”

The glint in the eyes of a resident as she described the Christmas she would spend with her sister was indescribable. “We used to spend Christmas with my sister, her husband and her children… we used to go to the midnight mass. We had a very happy Christmas.”

An elderly gentleman – the only male resident taking part in the class retold his story of attending midnight mass at Saint Dominic’s church in Valletta, where his found memories lie in often participating in the sermons as an altar boy.

The conversation then turned to food – a time-honoured tradition at Christmas. One resident described how her husband’s family used to make what she dubbed a “tipsy cake”, for layers soaked in brandy, giving it its unique, and alcoholic flavour. “My husband’s family used to make this cake, in each layer they used to put brandy and they called it tipsy cake,” she said. 

Then there is the famous Maltese chestnut ‘imbuljuta’, a traditional Maltese chocolate drink with chestnuts and flavoured with tangerine, cinnamon, and cloves, “After church, we would have breakfast or we would have Imbuljuta in the evening. We would gather the whole family and we would celebrate together as a family. When I get to see my family I enjoy it…. When I was a young girl we used to boil chocolate at Christmas time and eat it.”

Another resident told the story of going orange picking with her mother during the Christmas season – a tradition which used to be popular around this time of the year. “Malta used to be filled with ‘orange for sale signs’ when I was a young girl.”

The reminiscence class ended with reading from Charles Dickson’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Pace, a captivating end to the class, that had the residents enthralled in her narration.