Struggling to Make Thanksgiving Safe and Special

Do you have any dishes that you eat on Thanksgiving but not at any other time of year? On my family Thanksgiving table, you will find canned cranberry sauce. You have to open both sides of the can, carefully jiggle out the jelly in one big lump, and then slice it into circles, which must be served in a ring on a pretty plate. The reason we only eat canned cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving is—well, it’s that no one really likes it very much.

I bet you have some dishes like that. Marshmallows on sweet potatoes, maybe? String bean casserole? You might wonder why we serve these dishes at all. The answer is clear: because even traditions that don’t have much meaning in themselves have the power to pull back together what the years have separated. We serve traditional dishes because they bring back memories.

Thanksgiving family


If someone in your circle has Alzheimer’s, memories are more precious than ever. And Thanksgiving is probably the holiday that’s most about memories. There’s something about tastes and smells that’s particularly powerful: they bring us into direct contact with an object in a way that bypasses our minds and goes directly to the heart. What could be a better way to share an experience with someone you love who’s beginning to lose touch with the past?

So this year’s Thanksgiving presents a logistical and emotional conundrum. If you are watching someone you love undergo a gradual cognitive decline, you want to grab meaningful family time wherever you can find it—and family traditions are surely at the forefront of your mind. So it is especially heart-rending that the pandemic, which we all understand is especially dangerous for the older generations, makes it so hard to gather safely.

We all have some decisions to make. As we weigh the physical risks of gathering against the emotional risks of not gathering, I offer two important principles to keep in mind. The first is that a “good decision” should be defined as a decision that is reasonable according to what you know at the time you’re making it. A decision is a good decision if it makes sense now—no matter how the future turns out.

The second principle is that it’s best to avoid “all or nothing” thinking if you can. When you’re deciding how or whether to celebrate Thanksgiving with your loved ones, the choices are not just limited to Thanksgiving as usual or staying separate. Consider some compromises:

  • Is it possible for you to quarantine yourself before you visit your elderly loved ones? If so, you can reduce the risk of spreading the virus. If it’s not possible to go into full quarantine, are there ways you can reduce your possible exposure beforehand?
  • Can you drive instead of fly? If so, think of ways to reduce possible exposure on the way. For example, you can pack your own meals to avoid restaurants and take measures to sanitize the gas pump handle and rest stop bathrooms.
  • Can you reduce the number of people at your gathering? Maybe this is a year for just immediate family, with fewer aunts and uncles and cousins. A person with dementia might benefit from less noise and commotion anyway.
  • Can you shorten the duration of your family dinner? Or consider skipping some of the traditions that go along with the dinner, like watching football.
  • You may not be able to social distance completely at a Thanksgiving dinner, and you can’t wear a mask while you’re eating. But you can sit further apart, avoid hugs and kisses, and think about the way the food is served. Open the windows if you can, and spread out more than usual.


However you end up celebrating Thanksgiving, remember that the point of traditions is to stitch together the past and the present.


However you end up celebrating Thanksgiving, remember that the point of traditions is to stitch together the past and the present. If you decide that the risk to the health of your loved ones is too great, and you must miss this year’s Thanksgiving dinner with them, keep in mind the importance of Thanksgiving plays as a touchpoint for gathering together the years. If all you have this year is a phone call, use the time to reminisce. Don’t ask “Do you remember...”—just tell the stories. Talk about the Thanksgivings of long ago and the Thanksgiving of last year. No canned cranberry sauce required.


Written by, Wendy Bronfin on Nov. 6, 2020
Wendy Bronfin

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