When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. I like the crush of the fallen leaves, in all their glorious color (I’m not giving away too much if I acknowledge I’m from New Hampshire, right?) I like the crisp, brisk November air, with that hint of snow we hope waits until December.

I collect Thanksgiving traditions, and relish the story of the annual presidential pardoning of the bird. And then, of course, there’s the food! I guess I’ll never be sure whether turkey with all the fixings (you know, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry relish) is my all-time favorite because the food reminds me of the holiday, or whether my love of those foods made the day that much more memorable for me. Either way, the bottom line is that even with all of these decorative elements, my love of Thanksgiving is really because of the people.

You know, there’s a great tradition of mocking the experience of families getting together. This uncle can’t sit next to that great-niece, and those two aunts aren’t on speaking terms, so don’t invite them for the same festivities. But my nuclear family lives far from the extended folk, and nobody ever really wanted to brave the airports, so we always got together with our neighbors from across the way, whose family was similarly distant. So I got lucky – instead of all those family squabbles, the most intense conflict I remember is arguing over how loud the TV should be when we all settle down to watch the Thanksgiving Day football game.

The problem is that Thanksgiving really just isn’t like it used to be. And I have a hard time with what it’s become. And then I feel guilty.

Fact is, we all gather like we used to – people come from across the country, sometimes even across the globe (my brother once surprised us from Singapore.) But our neighbor from across the way – my mother’s compatriot, and the chef for the best post-Thanksgiving turkey soup ever – she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s several years ago. And I only ever really see her at Thanksgiving, so the holiday is completely different for me now. It kind of has become a time to track Sally’s deterioration – and it can be painful.

The only shining star in this significant change to my favorite holiday is her aide. You know, our beloved neighbor began losing touch with her memories and surroundings very gradually. It took her family a while to realize that she wasn’t just forgetting where she’d put her keys in old age, and a little longer than that before they clued my family in. By the time she was diagnosed, though, she was a lot further along than any of us had realized, and she needed home health care – you know, an aide working round-the-clock. This was already two years ago.

Thank goodness for Shula, her aide. She has really become part of the family. It’s not just that she’s a trained professional. She truly knows what she’s doing. Our neighbor is a very good-natured person, but she’s losing herself and gets uncomfortable, confused, and agitated sometimes. Shula is there to help her, support her, and calm her. It’s really remarkable – there’s something in Shula’s nature that makes her not only a calming influence, but also an uplifting one.

I think it’s the way she’s such a part of the family in a daily way that makes her part of the extended Thanksgiving celebration without my family reacting as if she were an intruder. It’s not just that we know intellectually how much she does for our neighbors, but that she’s so seamlessly integrated into their daily activities that it just makes sense for her to spend Thanksgiving with us too.

Truth be told, I don’t know everything Shula does, but I know that she’s caring for our neighbor just about all the time. She reminds her to use the bathroom; she helps her shower, she puts on her makeup every day to help her feel like herself, even when she doesn’t remember who that is. Shula escorts Sally all day long, whether for the many therapy appointments, or even just a walk around the block. Shula is fundamentally tireless – which is wildly inspiring and I’m so glad she’s the one taking care of our old friend.