Does your family have any Thanksgiving traditions? Do you share memories of years past, and do you share what you’re grateful for this year?
If you have family members who have dementia, there are ways to make these traditions more inclusive and enjoyable for them too.
The wonderful thing about stating what you’re thankful for is that the answer can’t be wrong! No matter what you are thankful for, no one else can say that the answer doesn’t count. This is a great conversation starter for someone who has dementia. It does not depend on factual memory, there is no right or wrong answer, and any answer can spark new discussion.
To make it easier for your loved one who has dementia, be sure to provide an example. It can be a lot of pressure to ask them first—“What are you thankful for?” Instead, you can start, and then ask “are you thankful for anything granddad?”
To keep the conversation going, you can encourage reminiscing, but be careful to avoid making grandad feel that he has to justify his answer. Here are some examples that might echo someone’s automatic response, but are not recommended, followed by an example that is more dementia-supportive.
Granddad responds: “I’m thankful for you!” and you respond “and why are you thankful for me?” Your intent is to keep granddad engaged in the conversation, but instead, it may feel like he has to justify his answer. That can add stress and pressure to granddad and he may be less likely to answer any other questions if he has to justify his response.
You can affirm his answer by saying “why thanks Granddad, and I’m thankful for you too! I’m grateful we’re having Thanksgiving dinner together with you tonight.” You have affirmed granddad’s answer and kept your response in the present moment so granddad doesn’t have to rely on recent memory.
If your granddad’s short term memory is highly impacted, he may have clearer memories of his childhood and he may often talk about his childhood. He may state that he’s thankful for his mother or his younger sister, both of whom have long since passed.
“Granddad your mother has been dead for nearly 30 years. Surely you have something to be grateful for today.” This response tells granddad that his answer is wrong, and it shuts down further conversation. It eliminates the opportunity for reminiscing and revealing his state of mind or thought process. It may also rip open the wound of grief if granddad has briefly forgotten that his mother is deceased and he may grieve her as though it is a new loss.
“oh yes Granddad, your mother was a very special woman. Do you have a favourite memory of her?” This response validates Granddad’s answer and opens up the opportunity for more conversation. The follow-up question is completely open-ended—he can say “no” he doesn’t have a favourite memory and that’s okay. If he is reminiscing and can remember something special, he is free to share. You might be amazed where the walk down memory lane can lead!
When encouraging someone to reminisce, aim to keep your follow up questions open-ended or opinion-based. If you ask fact-based questions it can feel like a test with an inferred right or wrong answer.
A fact-based question might be: “your mother always baked pies for thanksgiving. Do you remember what type of pie she baked?” There is an inferred right or wrong answer and it feels like a test.
Instead, ask opinion questions that cannot be right or wrong. “your mother always baked pies for thanksgiving. Did you have a favourite flavour of pie?”
If Granddad responds “I liked mother’s strawberry pie at thanksgiving” and you know that his mother did not make a strawberry pie, do not correct him! It is NOT helpful to say “oh granddad, that can’t be right. Your mother only ever used fresh fruit from the farm. She made strawberry pies in June with fresh strawberries from the field. At Thanksgiving, it had to be apple or pumpkin.”
Your response may be factually correct, but does it really matter? How does it make granddad feel to be corrected? It tells him that his answers are incorrect and will likely shut down further conversation. Is the purpose of the conversation to exchange correct facts, or is the purpose to help granddad reminisce and share positive memories in a loving environment?
“Your mother’s strawberry pies certainly were delicious! Wasn’t there a time when you were a little boy and you stole the pie out of the window where your mother left it cooling?” You validated your grandfather’s response about strawberry pies without correcting his response. To keep the conversation going, you’ve supplied more information to possibly spark his memory.
This is a story you’ve heard him tell many times before, and each time his face lights up with a mischievous grin—just like he’s 9 years old all over again! You’re giving him the gift of remembering a story that he loves to tell, and instead of testing his memory, you spark his memory and let him tell the details of the story as he remembers it. If his details differ from the last time he told the story, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is the star of the moment, telling his story the way he remembers it.
When you're together with family this Thanksgiving, and you have the opportunity to reminisce with family members who may have dementia, aim to provide supportive responses that keep the conversation going.
Remember that the purpose of the conversation is not to exchange factually correct information. The purpose is to share quality time with loved ones, validate their feelings, and share a moment of open love and trust. You may just be amazed at the memories that surface!