Thanksgiving is a time of togetherness, made up of Thanksgiving traditions we look forward to every year, delicious food with time-honored family recipes, old jokes and stories, and celebrating with family and friends. But when a family member is living with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, Thanksgiving planning just needs a special touch.
While your loved one living with dementia is thankful for all of those things, there may be changes in their life that may make it tough to remember and recall as well as they did before. Seeing family members and loved ones is so beneficial to someone with dementia, even if they don’t always remember everyone or fully acknowledge what is going on.
The joyful hustle and bustle of a typical family Thanksgiving, filled with many people, many conversations, can cause heightened levels of anxiety and confusion for someone living with Dementia. This can turn a wonderful day into an uncomfortable and stressful ordeal and awkwardness for family members and friends who may not know how to react.
No need to organize every single detail of this event in advance, but simply planning ahead can make a big difference on the outcome of a Thanksgiving to be enjoyed by all.
Here are some tips:
Prepare your loved one. We all need to make accommodations for our loved ones and dementia is no exception. Try to familiarize them with the guests beforehand. Showing photos, sharing stories, arranging a Facetime chat prior to the day’s celebration. You can even provide a formal physical invitation to your loved one so they know that it is happening and the event details.
Get your loved one involved. This is a great way to help them feel included. While they may not remember everything in their past, it’s important they don’t feel pushed aside because of their dementia. Everyone likes to feel useful and engaging your loved one into the Thanksgiving preparations will help them feel connected to everything that’s going on. It could be a fun bonding time for you both to decorate and plan part of the meal. Let your loved one help to set the table or conduct other simple tasks. There’s always plenty to do, enjoy the help. Keep in mind too much can be overwhelming, so you should spread out tasks throughout the day or even over a few days.
Prepare your guests (family/friends). Offer insight about your loved one and their present state, especially if they have not seen them in a while. Sharing beneficial information such as the best ways to approach and communicate with them, what they respond well or not so well to, how they can include him/her in the conversation will help to facilitate positive interaction and engagement.
Embrace the being together. Relatives and friends are often eager to help, but may not know how. Don’t be afraid to let them know. Ask family members to help with shopping or cooking in advance. Maybe even enjoy a potluck Thanksgiving where everyone brings a dish or cater the meal in. This can be a lifesaver in a household with a loved one living with dementia. You might ask a relative/ family friend to keep an eye out on your loved one. They can be a big help as you are busy with other guests and tasks. This too will give your loved one a chance to spend some time with someone they may not have seen for a while. Even if they don’t remember Cousin John or Aunt Jo, they’ll feel the warmth and affection from others who care about them.
Encourage reminiscing. Playing familiar music and bringing out some old photos are great for reminiscing. Placing photo albums in convenient places may help to inspire conversations along the way.
Factor in their routine. Changes in daily routine can be challenging for someone living with dementia. To the greatest extent possible, plan the celebration around keeping to their regular routine.
Go with the flow. If they are more excited about watching the football game or a movie, taking a nap, let them. Being flexible is the key to curbing a day full of tension and relieving your watching over your loved one with anxious eyes.
Keep it short but sweet. Don’t try to do too much in one day. The point is to enjoy the day, spend quality time with your loved one and don’t try and push through the hours as if you have another twenty to spare.
Hold your celebration earlier in the day. Individuals with dementia are often sensitive to the hours between late afternoon - early evening in which one may experience agitation and confusion (This is referred to as “sundowning”). This can certainly be compounded when adding a celebration and a house full of guests. One way we can reduce its impact and make for a more comfortable situation for your loved one is to consider planning your gathering earlier in the day.
Provide a quiet place for “down time”. Thanksgiving gatherings can get pretty loud. Even if your gathering is small, multiple conversations, maybe some unfamiliar old and new faces can become overwhelming. Having a quiet room or area ideally off the main area, where he/she can relax out of the center of all the activity where they can relax peacefully or have a chance to rest. You can certainly play some quiet music and even set up a small table should your loved one prefer to eat with a few family members instead.
Bring the festivities to them. If your loved one is living in a Memory Care center, consider bringing some of the Thanksgiving festivities to their home, joining the center’s planned festivities rather than disrupting their routine by transporting them to your gathering. Remember, Thanksgiving is a time for family/friends to gather to give thanks, catch up and share a special meal together.
Plan your own post-Thanksgiving “down-time”. You too need to make some time for yourself.
Director of Memory Support