Thanksgiving and Dementia. Yes, Still Cause for a Family Celebration

Elderly couple serving turkeyYour mother always cooked a huge Thanksgiving meal for the whole family and your father was always there at the head of the table, carving the turkey. This year is different because your mother has dementia. You and your father are her primary caregivers and are both determined to celebrate Thanksgiving just like your mother did — complete with all the fixings and Thanksgiving traditions.

For most people, Thanksgiving is about families reconnecting over a delicious meal, sharing old memories and making new ones. When someone has dementia, he/she may not even recognize family members or recall past Thanksgivings. How can you ensure that this Thanksgiving will be successful? That all depends on your definition of success. It may need some tweaking.

Ann O’Sullivan, who teaches the Savvy Caregiver Program at Southern Maine Agency on Aging says when you’re caring for someone with dementia, you have to constantly adapt. As for adapting to a “new” Thanksgiving, she recommends asking yourself, “How can we narrow down the experience of the day so that it won’t be overwhelming? Don’t give up on the celebration and things that are important to you and your family,” she says, “but also, don’t plan something at the expense of your own emotional well-being.”

We’ve put together a list of suggestions from Ann and various other sources to help you and your loved ones have the best Thanksgiving possible.

  • Adjust your expectations to the reality of the situation. Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t do as much this Thanksgiving as in previous years. Be kind to yourself. Ask people to help.
  • Make sure all of your guests know ahead of time what to expect regarding dementia-related behaviors and how to respond. Don’t take it for granted that everyone knows how to communicate with someone who has dementia.
  • Include your person with dementia in the preparations. Keep tasks simple and break them down into manageable steps.
  • Create a safe place where your person can retreat and rest, if necessary, and where other guests can sit quietly with him/her and visit one-on-one.
  • Have guests wear nametags that include how they’re connected to the person with dementia. For example, “Diane Atwood. Beverly’s daughter.”
  • Try to stick to the person’s normal routine, which may help keep the day less confusing.
  • If possible, involve your person in conversation by asking him/her to share a story about celebrating Thanksgiving as a child. It may be easier to recall older memories than more recent ones.
  • Understand that someone with dementia may not remember or grasp family traditions. You might have to make some adjustments if he/she seems upset and anxious. Maybe you could introduce a new tradition that makes more sense right now.
  • Ask someone to take pictures and put together an album that you can share with your person after the holidays.
  • Some people with dementia become more confused as the day wears on. Consider celebrating earlier in the day or winding things down sooner.
  • Be aware that intense lighting and sounds (loud conversations and the television, for instance) may startle and agitate someone with dementia.
  • Pay attention to your gut feelings. You probably know your person with dementia better than anyone, which means you’re likely to recognize subtle signs that he/she is agitated or uncomfortable or happy and content. If you notice something isn’t quite right, step in before it escalates. If everything seems just fine, savor the moment.
  • Try to savor every little moment you happen to notice. Whether someone has dementia or not, we often fail to recognize special moments. Your mother contentedly folding napkins or lovingly holding a grandchild’s hand, even if she doesn’t remember that it is her grandchild, is a joyful moment.
  • Let your guests do the clean up. At least, let them help.
  • If possible, arrange for someone else to be the caregiver the day after Thanksgiving. You’re probably going to need a day all to yourself.
  • Remember that living with dementia means living in the moment. What works for you this Thanksgiving might not work next year or even next month. Holidays can be especially difficult, so it’s helpful to attempt to have a strategy.

Our last suggestion comes from Carole Ware, director of staff development at Harmony Home Health in Florida. When a loved one has dementia it’s easy to focus on only negative and worrisome things — what can’t be done anymore or distressing behaviors that have developed. Instead, Carole encourages practicing what she calls an attitude of gratitude. “Instead of walking into the room and thinking, “Oh God, Mom has dementia,” why not say, “What a joy that she is still with us.”

If you need help caring for someone with dementia, Advantage Home Care provides specialized care. Alzheimer’s consultant Darlene Field provides ongoing training courses for our caregivers and assists with assessments of Alzheimer’s clients. She also provides educational seminars for family members and friends of Alzheimer’s patients. Let us know if you would like more information.

Do you have any holiday suggestions that have worked for your family that you would like to share? We’d love to hear them.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Our Aging in Place blog is written by Diane Atwood, who also writes the blogs Catching Health with Diane Atwood and 



Categories: Alzheimer's/Dementia and Blog.


  1. Kathy Marshall

    My late mother had dementia so the holidays were a challenge. At Thanksgiving I tweaked some of our traditions so she would not get confused or upset. I also gave her some chores with the cooking. I broke down the steps to make it easier for her. At Christmas she was totally confused and easily got overwhelmed. My sisters and I set up her tree. Again we gave her chores. She was in charge of picking out the ornaments she wanted hung on her tree as well as to decorate cookies. Our family always gathered on Christmas Eve for a party at her home. We have a large family so it can get very noisy. I asked people to go to another part of the house when it got too noisy. She sat in her favorite chair near the tree to greet everyone when they came in (even though she didn’t remember a lot of them) and could sit and visit one on one with the smaller children, which gave her great joy. I made sure everyone understood the signs of her moods and to act accordingly. All in all the holidays went rather smoothly for her.

  2. Diane

    Thank you so much for your comment Kathy. You created some beautiful memories for yourself and your family. I’ve been attending the Savvy Caregiver Program I mentioned in the post. We met this afternoon and I read your comment to everyone. We all agreed that you are definitely a savvy caregiver and we want to know if you attended the program!

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