Celebrating Thanksgiving with Loved Ones who Live with Dementia

Thanksgiving is a very special American holiday that carries many memories and not a little nostalgia for the past.

I remember riding in our family car with my sisters to visit Grandparents for Thanksgiving, and singing “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go!”  It’s a warm memory, infused with laughter and excitement.

Memories are at the heart of this holiday, which is focused on gratitude.

This year for Thanksgiving, you may want to consider a shift in your traditional way of looking at your Loved One who is living with dementia, and the ways they contribute to your family.

Consider your Elder’s strengths, and the gifts they offer, and actively express your Gratitude for them.

Instead of just remembering with sadness the grand meals your Elder used to make, be sure to experience gratitude for the memories, the recipes, and the ways your Loved One contributes to this years’ experience.  It will give her great pleasure to “teach” her favorite dishes to the younger set, and to help at whatever level she can and in a way that ensures success.

Autumn Tree SunsetInstead of focusing on illness, have the family create a list of gifts your Elder has given over the years and continues to give.  For example, a grandchild might write “I am grateful for the way Grandma has helped me with college, and for her encouragement in my studies.”

Share this list with the Elder in a packet of notes, so she can refer back to them.  This will make the moment last!

Focus on Laughter; it’s the greatest gift we can share among family and friends.

Consider a smaller group to cut down on noise and confusion for your Loved One.  Your Elder’s strength might now be to enjoy more intimate gatherings.

Provide a place for the Elder to step back and rest whenever she feels the need.  This might be a comfortable room where she can nap, or a second living space, such as a family room or den, located away from the bustle of dinner preparations or rowdy football games.

Remember the other care partners in your Elder’s life, and show your gratitude for them.  A card of thanks is a valuable gift to home health aides or the neighbor who keeps the walks cleared in the winter.

Stimulate memories and conversations by starting a story with, “I remember when we (did such and such…) It was always fun to be with the cousins,” instead of asking the Elder “do you remember…?”  The former is more likely to generate shared stories, while the latter can lead to frustration and increased confusion.

Seat your Elder next to someone who knows them well and is patient and kind.  They can watch for needs the Elder may have difficulty expressing, such as “pass the rolls, please!” or “may I be excused from the table.”  They can slow the conversation down so the Elder can participate.  Sometimes a little more time is all that’s needed.

Perhaps different family members can take turns attending closely to Grandmother or Grandfather, 30 minutes or an hour at a time.  This ensures that no one feels left out of that rowdy football game!

Some family holidays are day-long affairs.  Is this what works best for your older Loved One now, or should she come for the part of the day that is most meaningful and manageable for her?

Speaking of “meaning,” a guideline to help you decide what and how much to do for the holiday should be to ask what is meaningful for you, your Elder, and your family.  Stretching yourself to do extra cleaning or make everything from scratch might leave you feeling too tired to enjoy the gathering.

Where can you cut back on work, or delegate tasks, while keeping the most meaningful parts of your time together intact?  Is there a ritual your family does for Thanksgiving that you want to honor?  Figure out how your Elder can participate easily.

For example, a family who has always had each member read a verse or passage at the table might shift the custom to showcase the teens or the younger kids.  If your Elder’s reading is good, but recall is poor, she may be OK with reading something rather than reciting from memory.

What ideas do YOU have for enjoying Thanksgiving with your family, and for adapting to the needs of a Loved One who is living with dementia?

Please share your comments below, and have a Blessed Holiday.

4 Responses to “Celebrating Thanksgiving with Loved Ones who Live with Dementia”

  • Carol Whitlow:

    Hi Lisa,
    I like your thoughts about transferring that energy and urge we have to our relationship with our, or other, kids. In my case, most attempts to converse with mom are frustrating. My mom doesn’t really carry on a conversation, read, watch TV or movies, use a CD player, or remember. I visited with my mom in her independent living facility just before Thanksgiving. I tried to put out a few Christmas things and she said “not now” – she has lost her sense of time and no time is the right time for her. I put the old home door decoration her door, and when we got out of the elevator, she said “we’re on the wrong floor.” I showed her a photo of her home she moved in April) with the door-hanging and the address visible. She looked at it blankly. “Does 167 ring a bell for you?” I asked. That was her address for 40 years. She looked quizzical, then asked “Was that Falkland?” (the apartment she lived in for one year right after she was married 70 years ago). I tried playing her some piano tunes on the facility piano. She sat blankly but a fellow resident came in and starting singing along. But mom was tired and wanted to go back to her room. Each of us kids will celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas in our own towns. We all feel badly that mom is in the facility. She doesn’t want to go amidst the chaos of the nearest son’s home. I think the only thing we can do is let her be how she wants and not push her into what we want for ourselves and for her. And, we can express our sincere gratitude to the aides and staff of the facilities where she now lives, those who work round the clock and miss their family celebrations, either in town or on the other side of the globe.

    • Lisa Kendall:

      Thanks, Carol. You really highlight the importance of offering activities that ate meaningful, and how “meaning” can change over time for someone who is living with dementia. I hope you have a great holiday, and thank you for thinking of thise care partners at your Mom’s home!!

  • A wonderful article, thank you. I will share it widely. And congratulations on your interview in the Ithaca Journal.

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