The Thanksgiving holidays are the very emblem of family spirit. No holiday is more concerned with involving family members, yet for families with dementia patients, there are often special challenges associated with “Turkey Day.”
All these people
Thanksgiving usually means an influx of people into the household. Granted, these are almost always family members or dear friends, but there are still usually more of them present than usual. For some with dementia, this may be a welcome development; for others, however, it may be disconcerting, if not totally confusing. In some cases, it can even be frightening and can produce feelings of outright panic. Patients who go to other family members’ houses for the celebration may experience other problems; in such cases, not only are there many people in the house, but the surroundings are also less familiar.
Making the day easier
Caregivers know their patients better than anyone and can best gauge the level of confusion that is likely to result from a day filled with smiling but somehow not quite familiar faces, tons of questions, and lots of noise and activity. Here are a few things to consider when thinking about making Thanksgiving as pleasant as possible for your loved one with dementia.
- Scale it down. If your usual Thanksgiving is likely to prove too overwhelming for Grandma, talk with your family members about ways to keep it manageable. Can the number of guests be reduced without hurting feelings? If not, can the dinner be held at a larger house, where Grandma won’t feel hemmed in by people? Alternatively, can it be made shorter? If Thanksgiving must be at your house, have the dinner there but perhaps move dessert and after-dinner activities to another family member’s house.
- Prepare your loved one as much as possible. If Grandma is not upset by hearing about new things, tell her about the plan for Thanksgiving several days in advance: who will be there, what their relationship is to her, why they are coming, and what to expect. Keep repeating this information every day; she may not remember all of it, but if she remembers even a little, it can help her. Also, add visual clues to your discussions: show her a picture of Cousin Bill so she will more easily recognize him.
- Prepare the other guests. Contact those who will be attending the feast and remind them that Grandma has dementia and explain, briefly, what to expect. Ask them to be patient or to not be put off if she doesn’t remember them. Tell them some of the things that Grandma does remember or the things that she likes to talk about, so that they can more easily engage her in conversation.
- Keep the schedule in mind. Thanksgiving tends to be a length holiday; while the dinner itself may not last that long, there’s often a considerable amount of time devoted to visiting both before and after. How well will Grandma hold up during all this? Do you need to make plans to schedule a nap for her, or to excuse her when her favorite TV show comes on? If dinner is later than usual for Grandma, will she need a snack beforehand?
- Change the scene when necessary. Sometimes excessive noise and activity can become overwhelming to a person with dementia, especially if some engage in vocal arguments while watching a football game. Keep an eye on Grandma and take her into a quiet room for a little down time when necessary. Even better: ask her favorite grandchild to take her into a quiet room and to read her a story, so the two can have some quality time together.
Many people with dementia count Thanksgiving as one of their favorite days, even if it does present challenges. Even those whose dementia impedes their understanding of the holiday can still enjoy the day, with proper planning and consideration.