For your parents or other older adults, aging-related issues can bring stress to the Thanksgiving festivities. You can’t fix their health problems or bring back people who have passed on, but there are steps you can take to help them enjoy the day.
Here’s how to help with some common issues older people might face at Thanksgiving.
The challenge: You don’t know what your aging parent needs or wants.
What you can do: Ask them. “Most older adults know their preferences and limitations — that’s how they’ve made it into advanced old age after all,” says Anna Yam, PhD, a clinical psychologist with a specialty in gerontology and the founder of Bloom Psychology.
“They might tell you that they’d prefer to attend dinner for an hour or two, or to sit next to a specific person at the table. Having this information allows you to help them make it happen.”
The challenge: Traditions bring up painful reminders for your loved one.
What you can do: Listen to them, even if what they have to say is sad or negative. “The holidays may highlight the losses they have experienced in their lives such as the death of a spouse, the deaths of other relatives or loved ones, deteriorating health, or changes in their environment,” says Arthur Bretschneider, the CEO and co-founder of Seniorly.com.
And don’t assume you have to solve their problems or give advice. Just be there for them.
The challenge: A full-on, all-day family celebration is just too much.
What you can do: “When our loved ones aren’t up to a full Thanksgiving, it’s important to adjust our expectations to help them enjoy the holiday within their current limitations,” says John Kenda, a personal care services provider consultant and owner of Able Home Care Solutions in Las Vegas, NV.
Consider just doing dessert, and going to their space if that’s feasible. “Scale back expectations to make the holiday pleasant and successful for everyone,” Kenda says.
The challenge: Your aging loved one feels overwhelmed by the crowd and activity.
What you can do: Help them find a comfortable place to sit that’s a bit out of the way. “Such spots are good for one-on-one conversations, which are easier for older adults to track and enjoy,” Yam says. Check in periodically to make sure they are comfortable.
The challenge: Your loved one feels unneeded.
What you can do: “Involve them in your celebration in meaningful ways,” Bretschneider says. They may remember their years of hosting Thanksgiving and now feel sidelined. If they can prep vegetables sitting down, bring a cutting board and knife to the table.
If you have young children, get them involved — that will benefit both generations, says Kaylynn Evans, executive director of Vineyard Bluffton, an assisted living community opening soon in Bluffton, SC: “They can do a craft together or bond over preparing a part of the meal and ease some of the work on you.”
And at some point during the day, you can make the senior the center of discussion by asking questions and having them share their experiences of past Thanksgiving celebrations, says Steven Michael Barlam, a social worker with LivHOME, Inc.
The challenge: Your parent struggles to hear, especially in noisy conditions.
What you can do: You probably can’t keep a houseful of people quiet. Instead, “Take your parent or grandparent into a quiet room and ask family to visit them individually so they can get the most from conversations,” says Lakelyn Hogan, gerontologist and caregiver advocate for Home Instead Senior Care. Make sure people face the person when they are speaking.
Make accommodations during dinner. “Strategically sitting aging family members at the end of the table next to one or two family members who will be intentional about including them in conversations can often be the best way to ensure they feel included,” says Lisa Mayfield, the 2019 president of the Aging Life Care Association.
And take a day off from nagging — asking them to get their hearing tested, or to wear their hearing aids, can wait for another day.
The challenge: Your relative doesn’t see well.
What you can do: Keep rooms well lit. “Remind guests to provide audio clues when they are approaching, such as, ‘Grandma, it’s Jonathan, so great to see you,’” says Barlam. You can also have someone sit beside the person and help narrate what they can’t see.
The challenge: Your aging parents forget things and repeat themselves.
What you can do: Be patient, and remind guests who don’t interact with them often that they might hear the same stories more than once.
The challenge: Your relative gets tired easily.
What you can do: Build in time for a nap before or after dinner, and try to make sure the day proceeds on schedule so they aren’t forced to stay later than they planned. Watch out for overstimulation, which can tire a person out, Barlum says.
The challenge: Your loved one is always cold.
What you can do: Seat them strategically. “Aging family members appreciate a warm house. Encourage layers and be intentional about seating. Save the ‘hot seats’ for those who prefer being cozy,” says Mayfield. And have a blanket or sweater handy in case they need it.
The challenge: Your relative is prone to falls.
What you can do: Whoever is hosting Thanksgiving may not have a home that’s set up to minimize the risk of falls. Make sure your relative has someone by their side if needed. Tack down area rugs and clean up toys. Make sure the home is brightly lit.
The challenge: Your parent becomes agitated.
What you can do: Help them stay calm and avoid overstimulation. “If they are living in an apartment by themselves and then you put them in a situation with children running around, music playing, loud conversations, etc., that can be overstimulating,” says Dwayne J. Clark cofounder and CEO of the assisted living communities Aegis Living.
Also, keep in mind that it’s common for people with dementia to become confused or agitated in the late afternoon or evening.
The challenge: You’re worried about your parent driving to and from your event.
What you can do: Thanksgiving is a stressful time to be on the roads. There’s often lots of traffic, and it gets dark early. You might consider offering to drive them, or arranging for transportation. You’ll both enjoy the day more if you aren’t worried about them on the road.