November 2011 Newsletter – EXTRA THOUGHTFULNESS at a TIME for THANKSGIVING

Special Considerations for Ill or Aging Loved Ones

At a time when families come together to recognize what they are thankful for we are reminded that not all Thanksgivings look like the Butterball TV commercials. The Norman Rockwell painting of loving family members, in more than casual attire, smiling and sharing their mouth-watering anticipation over an abundance of autumn culinary dishes surrounding a hefty golden turkey is not what every family’s experience will be this November 24th.

Besides the dire economic changes for many families, there may be a loved one missing from the family gathering this year. There may be adjustments in order to honor a loved one now in a hospice or nursing home. For a family member whose health or condition may be compromised but yet able to join in the gathering, particular issues may need consideration.

  • If Grandpa isn’t able to eat the typical thanksgiving food but is craving a particular soup, you might attempt to accommodate his craving in some way. If nothing sounds good to Aunt Betty because of her health, but a dish her mother always made at the holidays is something she might savor, then replicating that dish may be a very worthwhile and special effort for her.
  • If a loved-one’s senses are not what they used to be due to aging or medications, and food can’t be as enjoyed as it once was, you could emphasize the other senses…such as playing hymns or holiday music from an era or artist that is favored by your loved one.
  • Chaos and noise can be disturbing to someone whose nervous system has boundaries. For someone suffering from dementia, too much stimulation can be overwhelming. When there is too much noise and confusion it can cause agitation.



  • When noting an apparent failing of function or memory, refraining from discussing this in front of your loved one preserves their dignity. Thoughtlessly commenting on a behavior or disability in front of them, and before others, is humiliating. One can’t assume that comments cannot be heard by them just because you are a few feet away or in a near room.
  • If eating has become difficult or your loved one requires assistance with eating, assist them while others are not necessarily around or in a position of observing.
  • When family members have not seen each other for a while, and have not been cognizant of possible physical or mental changes in their ill or elder family member, it is easy to misunderstand changed behaviors. Unfortunately, some family members inexperienced with these changes may respond by addressing the elder as if they were addressing a child. Respecting their dignity should not be overlooked.
  • When addressing an elder or ill family member it is recommended to always approach them from the front, speaking directly to them, and maintain eye contact. Move slowly and also emphasize non-verbal communicating, such as smiling and nodding to acknowledge their presence and comments.
  • If it has been a long time since a previous visit by a distant family member, it might prove helpful to introduce yourself….for example:  “Hi, Uncle Phil. I’m Jeff. I’ve been away at college and haven’t seen you for a long time.”
  • Being slow to respond or forgetful could be a side effect of medication rather than dementia or stereotypical of aging. If they are having difficulty hearing you, instead of speaking louder or in a higher pitch, which makes it more difficult to understand you, lower your voice, speak slowly, and if needed, rephrase your question or comment.


Thoughtful Listening

  • It is so easy to ask, “How are you doing?” to which most people respond with “Oh, fine.” or, “I’m hanging in there.” An alternative is to at least let them know you have been thinking of them, or to offer, “I’m really sorry you haven’t been well lately.” If they wish to comment further at this prompting, honor them with being an attentive listener, not indicating in any way that you don’t have time for their response, or dismissing their genuine response with comments such as, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll feel better tomorrow.”
  • If your friend or loved one is unable to carry on much of a conversation, refrain from filling the silence with a dissertation about your own health, or mundane subjects to simply fill the stillness.
  • Holding their hand, placing your hand on their forearm, maintaining eye contact, nodding or otherwise acknowledging what they have said is generally appreciated. There is nothing wrong with a little silence or time to gather thoughts.
  • Initiating conversation that stimulates remembering a happy time in their past may be comforting to them…perhaps about previous holidays and special family memories.
  • For a family member who is having difficulty communicating due to medication or dementia, asking a question that requires only a yes or no answer is less confusing than asking a question with options that require consideration. Often the intelligence has not diminished; only the time needed to retrieve the information now takes a little longer.

When we focus on the meaning of the holidays instead of allowing the build up of stress over the anticipation of entertaining, our experiences will be more rewarding. The more we simplify our expectations for the day or season, the more we can tune into genuinely being there for one another, to recall memories, and also to make new memories to hold onto for generations to come.