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Accommodating Dementia at Thanksgiving

I’ve talked about being on the lookout for signs of early onset dementia as we all begin our holiday gatherings.  Dementia may be difficult to detect for a number of reasons.  First, early onset can be evidenced in very subtle or small changes in behavior or recall, so it may be the accumulation of a number of tells that begin to tell us there is some slippage.  Second, most of us are so fearful of losing our faculties that we tend to deny it or try to hide it from others, and after all who doesn’t forget someone’s name at some point?  Third, loving couples tend to compensate or cover for one another.  One partner may see the lapses in the other, but work to help their partner feel as empowered as they were before this decline.  For all of these reasons, it underscores how we all should work to be empathetic and sensitive to the special needs of a loved one who may experience some form of dementia, because they can still function very well with some accommodation.

            So, once you do notice something or perhaps any number of things that are just not quite right in your older loved one, be sensitive about how you broach the issue…if you bring it up at all.  As dementia sets in, it may cause a great deal of anxiety in the person with the symptoms.  The anxiety understandably comes from a feeling of helplessness, and it is important to not provoke the anxiety into full blown defensiveness or angry outbursts.  Here are three suggestions for friends, families, and caregivers on how to soothe an older adult with some form of dementia while maintaining a meaningful line of communication.

1.    As you plan the holiday gathering, think about the way these events have always been hosted in the past.  Keep the surroundings and the routine familiar, and avoid noisy restaurants, especially places where the older person may be unfamiliar. If there has always been a certain way you prepared the pie, do it that way again, and you may be amazed how the tastes and the smells bring a wonderful memory back even to someone with memory loss.

2.    It may be appropriate to downsize the gathering a bit.  In the past you may have invited a whole host of friends and family, but a smaller gathering of familiar faces will prove much easier for a person with dementia to navigate. While not every face will have a name for a person with dementia, familiar faces will put them more at ease.

3.    Appreciate that it is short term memory that is the most common casualty in dementia, but you can still talk about the early memories which everyone can replay and enjoy together.  And it does not hurt to hear a wonderful memory repeated more than once at a family gathering.


            Finally, it is really all about family and sharing a positive moment, so be sensitive.  If a story is repeated more than once you can indulge that.  The most important thing to remember is to just enjoy the family moment.  Follow your instincts about what has always been special in the past, and it likely will be pleasant for everyone again this year.

            Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Case Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  Please email your questions to


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