Dreaming of an Inclusive Thanksgiving

A few days ago I was pushing back tears after I found out that both of the families my husband and I usually spend Thanksgiving with had already planned gatherings that aren’t wheelchair accessible.  Mom hadn’t been part of those older traditions.  She and I lived many states apart for most of my adult life, and we didn’t often make the long journey, but now she’s here and she wants to be part of the action.  When both of these families invited us for Thanksgiving last month, neither mentioned that it was okay to bring my mother, which left me wondering and feeling awkward and lost about what to do.

My mom was the one who would always think to invite the hidden people in our childhood small town to dinner who didn’t have a place to go.  My sister and I got used to sharing the holiday table with nuns, priests, widows, single neighbors – people old and young who seemed to come out of the shadows.  We thought Mom was odd to do this, and weren’t always keen on the idea, but by the end our house was always transformed by the full table of motley characters, and after the last one had finally headed out it seemed a bit too empty.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I love harvest time – the last big burst of colorful, nourishing, local foods.  I love cooking up a storm and gathering in community.  Sharing a good meal is one of my greatest pleasures.  And that didn’t come out of a vacuum.  My mother always appreciated good food, and still asks me to bring certain seasonal dishes for her at the appropriate time of year. Even when nothing else is registering in her brain, her palate is very much intact.

My mother’s residence does exceptionally well with activities 7 days per week, but has a strange habit of writing this  on their activity calendar on every major holiday of the year:  “Holiday – No Scheduled Activities”.

I figure they do that to give their staff a break, to let them get away and enjoy much needed respite time with their own families.   But it’s really hard on the caregivers during an already stressful time with lots of expectations, to have that vacuum at the residence.  If they were having a special meal there, we’d attend with Mom, and then go to our other gatherings later.

Since one of the Thanksgivings my husband and I like to attend to is run by one of my best friends, I called her up and asked her point blank about Mom.  She’s hosting a boatload of relatives and friends, making a ton of food, and understandably wants to keep things in her own home.  The other group organizer I didn’t ask, assuming it was a similar situation.  I actually don’t really expect people to change the location just for someone they barely know, but when her existence isn’t even acknowledged on a big holiday, it hurts.

So now I need to face reality and rework this holiday.  I’m done moping about it, feeling sorry for myself, and getting frustrated with the friends and family who hadn’t thought of trying to suggest a way to include my mom.  It probably never occurred to them, and isn’t surprising that they would miss this when they’re trying to organize a huge event.  So many people in this country are worse off this year and may not have any kind of holiday meal, so my worries seem pretty petty in comparison when I step outside myself and look at the big picture.

So I’ve been looking around for community meals, senior meals, and fantasizing about a dementia-friendly Thanksgiving where a crowd of people in the same predicament could come together in an accessible building and share good food without worrying about all the things a person with dementia might do when it’s time to sit down quietly and use holiday manners.  I’ve been asking around at the support groups and senior centers.  I even posted this desire on Facebook, hoping someone might spread the word and that my post would reach a caregiver or two in the area with the same need.

So far the only option I’ve come up with is a free community meal at a church in the nearest large city, so this is the plan for now.  Most churches are used to people from all walks of life, so if Mom falls asleep in her squash, maybe no one will bat an eye.  I’m starting to get excited about supporting this generous event by volunteering the day before to contribute and help prepare food.  It’s a free meal this group puts on every year for the giant crowd who shows up.

We’ll take Mom there first, will try not to eat to much and hope she won’t notice, and then we’ll head over to our friends’ place after we drop her off.  We’ve done this before, and although it works, I always feel emotionally split in half.  But sometimes this is as good as it gets, and Mom can’t handle more than a few hours of socializing anymore, so my head understands, even if my heart is a bit raw.

And how about you other caregivers?  What are you doing for Thanksgiving?  Are you attending different meals?  One with your loved one and one without?  Or have you found a way to make it all come together somehow? 

This entry was posted in caregiver stress, support, and respite, dementia, family issues, inclusion and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Dreaming of an Inclusive Thanksgiving

  1. Kathy says:

    Sweet and simple for us.
    I’m ordering the Turkey Dinners from Schwans and having just a few sides with a pumpkin pie.
    Hubby doesn’t do very well with crowds of people so if he chooses to sit at the dining table or in his room he will be comfortable.
    I stopped putting a lot of significance into the holidays and started appreciating the other times family are able to come over and join us for a meal or a visit.
    Lewy Body Dementia has pared down our lives quite a bit.

    One year Hubby and I help host a free dinner to the community.
    I cooked and cooked and cooked. I also cooked 😉
    It was SO much fun to host and our children helped serve.
    Gosh that seems like a million years ago now but I so enjoyed it.

    I hope you enjoy your dinner with your mother, the community and later with your friends 🙂

  2. Megan says:

    Hi Kathy,

    Thanks for writing. How practical, sensible, and generous you sound. I appreciate your model, was especially drawn to your statement about putting less emphasis on the holidays and more on the good times that work out for gatherings. What great advice.

    Take care and enjoy yourselves this Thanksgiving!

  3. I’m late reading here, Megan, but am sorry your favorite holiday is now fraught with complications. I hadn’t realized that your mom was wheelchair bound? We haven’t experienced those limitations yet, tho’ I certainly see a decline in strength and maneuverability in my own mom and wonder how much that will change our lives in the future.

    Since Mom can still get around, we will do what we always do and join the lovely meal my husband’s mother always prepares in Williamsburg. Come to think of it…my husband’s grandmother used to always join us for Thanksgiving before she died, and they had a few boards of plywood stored away to make a temporary ramp to get her up the stairs in her wheelchair. I suppose you’ve mentally (and planning-wise) moved beyond the idea of your mom joining in with your usual festivities, but that memory just came back to me.

    I do hope that in one way or another it will be a good Thanksgiving for you both.

  4. Megan says:

    Thanks, Lesley. Yes, Mom quickly transitioned from a walker to being completely wheelchair bound, and I don’t think I wrote about it yet. It’s somewhat of a relief to not have her falling all the time, though it dampens her spirits to have lost this last bastion of independence. She’s still pretty in denial and thinks her ability to walk will return if she tries hard enough.

    I think we figured out Thanksgiving now. A newer friend whose parents are older and have similar issues invited us to their gathering in the evening. We’ll take Mom to the community Thanksgiving meal at lunch, which I’m going to volunteer to prep for the day before, and then if she’s game for dinner out too, we’ll bring her with us to my friend’s house.

    It was a big relief to let go of the usual plans where she wasn’t included. Sometimes traditions need to die if they stop working!

    Take care and enjoy your gathering in Williamsburg. Glad your mom can come along this year.

  5. momsbrain says:

    I felt sort of guilty reading this. I counted my mom out of holidays awhile ago, for a variety of reasons. The last holiday I brought her home was an Easter Sunday, I imagine in 2008. Mom was in assisted living and had made friends with a small group of ladies who liked to sit in the lobby and watch the world go by. We ate dinner and Mom put on her coat – she wanted to get back to her friends. My feelings were hurt, stupidly, even though I was so glad she had friends and felt that assisted living was home. I haven’t brought her to my home since then. That facility had a special holiday dinner for Thanksgiving the Sunday before. The nursing home she is in now has a holiday dinner the Thursday before. The actual holiday will be like any other Thursday, with a normal schedule of activities. And I may or may not visit Mom that day. As the nursing home staff said to me when I expressed some concern about balancing a visit and travel on Christmas, “Here, every day is Christmas.” Before Mom was sick, I did have her over for Thanksgiving dinner, sometimes with one of her friends. I like making that meal, and now I just make it for my husband and me sometime during the long weekend. We visit my dad and his wife on the actual day. I feel more sadness about Christmas – none of our holidays was necessarily a big deal, but Mom liked Christmas, and I tend to miss her a lot during that season. Which has made me less interested in the holiday overall. I hope you have a great Thanksgiving day, and I commend you for your effort to make it possible for your mom to participate.

  6. Megan says:

    HI Emily,

    No, no- no guilt please. My mom’s dementia is really different from where your mom is at right now. If my mother were not aware of the exact holiday day, I’d probably be celebrating alone with my friends, just for the sake of logistics. These days, Mom doesn’t want to leave her facility much at all, especially now that it’s cold, and definitely not after dark. This holiday season may be the last one that we can swing this, so that’s where a lot of the motivation is coming from. Plus her emotional memory is fully intact! if I leave her stranded on a holiday, she reminds me for months about it. Doesn’t count for her if we celebrate with her the day before or day after. She will feel abandoned, period. I think this is called DEMANDING dementia.

    Some days I long for Mom to get to the stage your mom is at, where she doesn’t have the awareness to live in the future or past and get upset about it- where we can just enjoy the present.

    I guess the grass is always greener, right?

    Take care and enjoy your lovely meal with your husband guilt-free. You’re a phenomenal caregiver and you totally deserve it!

  7. momsbrain says:

    Megan, You’re right. Mom hasn’t known it’s Thanksgiving for a number of years and, though it represents loss of memory and ultimately the end of traditions, it can definitely make things easier when this happens. My mom went through a very demanding period and I do recall that as a difficult time for me. And probably her. The grass is greener indeed!
    Take care,

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