Gathering for a Thankful Thanksgiving

Vicky Pitner   -  

Thanksgiving is a time for friends, families, football, and a feast! And don’t forget the iconic Macy’s Day Parade that welcomes Santa in preparation for Christmas! These and other activities and rituals are traditions for many families and are often passed on through generations and are both meaningful and helpful when planning a holiday gathering. The traditions can provide a sense of grounding and comfort during high-pressure times by providing familiarity and a sense of belonging.

The anticipation of holidays can bring excitement and also high expectations. When a loved one is living with dementia, some past family traditions might cause anxiety and confusion. Combined with the stress we put on ourselves, we may have mixed feelings of dread and anticipation for the upcoming season.

However, by finding a balance by planning and preparing with your loved one and your family, the Thanksgiving holiday can still be a joyful gathering. Below are tips to make your Thanksgiving celebration more enjoyable for everyone!

  • Consider an early lunch or brunch rather than a late evening celebration. Confusion and anxiety for the person living with dementia can often be worse in the evenings.
  • Always have someone with your loved one to ensure safety and engagement and to anticipate triggers that might cause increased anxiety.
  • Find a quiet spot for your loved one and encourage others to come to the person to visit. One on one interaction can be less stressful and having refreshments available to create a safe place is helpful.
  • Encourage family members to engage in conversation by starting the sentence with “I was thinking about mom’s Pumpkin pie, rather than asking, “Do you remember moms Pumpkin pie? This can bring back a good memory to share. Remember, your family member does not remember, but can recall events with simple prompts.
  • Having something for your family member to hold such a pet or favorite quilt can also lessen anxiety. A family photo album may spark a pleasant conversation, but avoid asking the person to name the persons in the photo. Point to the people and reminisce by statements such as “There’s Uncle Dan. I recall when he took me fishing.”
  • Seat your family member at the dinner table next to a familiar person before others arrive at the table to give him/her a few minutes to adjust to a new environment.
  • Let others know what to expect. If family members haven’t visited recently they may not be aware of significant cognitive changes in your loved one.
  • Avoid talking about current events around your family member. Conversations are hard to follow and are confusing when there is memory loss and the person will feel left out. Reminiscing reminds us of some of our best times and works well to help your family member feel included. If the person repeats a story, just listen again and help the person feel connected to the gathering.
  • Share stories rather than sharing opinions. A peaceful holiday makes for better memories!
  • Avoid correcting the person with memory loss. Just go with the flow. Inaccurate dates, locations, and people’s names are really insignificant. Facts are not important, only feelings matter.
  • Keep with the routine for your family member. Make sure everyone is well rested and watch for signs of anxiety, and be prepared to adjust.

Thanksgiving may look different this year. You can focus on the differences or stay in the moment and create opportunities for new traditions and memories. Celebrate what is, not what was.

If you, a friend, or a family member would be interested in learning more about our Memory Ministry, Memory Cafe, training or family coaching, please contact Vicky Pitner at