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Thanksgiving Activities for Seniors in Assisted Living

If you have a parent or loved one in assisted living, finding ways to celebrate Thanksgiving might feel like a daunting task. Seniorly's got some expert advice on how to make the holiday fun - and stress free - for everyone.

By Marlena del Hierro Updated on Nov 27, 2023

As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us find ourselves juggling the excitement of hosting the holiday with a desire to make it equally special for our senior loved ones who, for various reasons, can't join us in person. This time of year can be especially challenging for adults, who may have an elderly loved one in an assisted living or senior living community. So if the stress of making sure this Thanksgiving is special for the entire family is taking its toll on you, we've got some ideas to keep the holiday simple and focused on the important things; friends, family, memories and of course - food!

Celebrating Thanksgiving in assisted living

Thanksgiving can sometimes stir up feelings of nostalgia and a sense of loss for older adults who live in senior living communities. Many of them have spent years hosting big Thanksgiving gatherings, and the move to a more structured living environment can make them miss the old days. For those dealing with health issues or limited mobility, the thought of not being able to help in the kitchen, decorate, or gather around their own dining table with family can be discouraging. So we've got some great tips to help those family members stay connected, full of positive emotions and truly enjoy Thanksgiving this year.

As a reminder, most assisted living communities will plan for Thanksgiving activities on the day itself, so consider planning the celebration with your loved one before or after the official holiday. This way, you can balance your own plans with making sure your loved ones get family time - all without creating the added stress that so often accompanies family holidays.

8 fun Thanksgiving activities for seniors

  • Make it a movie day: Gather with family members in assisted living and watch movies with a Thanksgiving theme. Pick a classic or find a new favorite, and make it fun by bringing popcorn, blankets and scented candles. (Note: This is an especially good activity if you are bringing teens or younger children!). If you're feeling stuck on movie selection, we've got a few ideas to get you started:
  • Watch the Macy's parade: Make Thanksgiving morning extra special by tuning in to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade together. Enjoy the colorful floats, giant balloons, and lively performances from the comfort of your loved one's assisted living facility, creating a festive and heartwarming holiday atmosphere.
  • Create a recipe book: Chances are that your elderly loved one has either prepared or joined many a Thanksgiving dinner table over their lifetime. Work together to document their favorite foods and recipes, and create a Thanksgiving Recipe Book in their name. This is another great one for grandchildren to participate in, and you can even turn it into a holiday present later on by turning it into a printed cookbook. Sites like Heritage Cookbook or even Shutterfly are a great resource for crafts like this!
  • Make a Thanksgiving playlist: Create a Thanksgiving dinner playlist filled with music from various eras to set the perfect mood for your festive meal. Incorporate timeless classics and modern hits that will resonate with different generations, adding a delightful musical backdrop to your Thanksgiving celebration.
  • Plan the menu: Even if they can't be there in person, your loved one or parent might enjoy helping you plan a thanksgiving meal menu and giving you tips for timing. After all, they've likely hosted more than one Thanksgiving dinner, and being able to share their wisdom will make them feel valued and respected.
  • Play Thanksgiving games: Organize friendly games such as Thanksgiving-themed bingo, trivia, or card games to create a more festive atmosphere.
  • Plan a scavenger hunt: Plan a scavenger hunt with kids in the nursing home, where kids can search for things that the resident knows. Easy items to add to the list? Your favorite caregiver, books in the lobby, items on a bulletin board or thanksgiving decorations. It's a great way to keep younger children active and having fun!
  • Bring a second dinner: Keep the Thanksgiving spirit alive by teaming up for some meal preparation with your loved one in assisted living. Together, you can whip up a second feast complete with a tasty turkey and a delicious pumpkin pie, making it a special and shared holiday celebration.

9 Thanksgiving crafts to do with seniors

Get into the Thanksgiving spirit by organizing a some seriously fun thanksgiving activities together with kids. So visit the craft store, grab some construction paper and glue dots, and plan for a relaxing and fun Thanksgiving holiday celebration. Here are our top 10 activities that are especially good for doing with children:

  • Handprint turkey art: Get creative and share some lighthearted fun by making hand turkeys for Thanksgiving, a classic and playful craft that's sure to bring smiles to all ages.
  • Pumpkin painting: Pumpkin carving can get pretty messy, so why not paint your pumpkins instead? Embrace the autumn spirit by painting pumpkins with leaf shapes and end up with a mess-free activity that adds a unique and artistic touch to your Thanksgiving decor.
  • Pom pom turkeys: Craft adorable pom-pom turkeys together as a charming and easy DIY project, adding a touch of whimsy to your Thanksgiving celebrations while creating a cherished keepsake
  • Thankful trees: Foster gratitude by creating "Thankful Trees" with colorful leaves, where each leaf represents something you're grateful for, turning the holiday into a season of appreciation and reflection.
  • Oreo cookie turkeys: Not only are these fun to make, but sharing them with others provides a great reason to get out and meet other residents in the community.
  • Painted Rocks: Another easy one for all generations to participate in, you can customize these to send any message.
  • Thanksgiving table centerpiece: If your elderly loved one is mobile, take a stroll and gather colorful leaves and tree branches to decorate the dinner table.
  • Potato stamp thank you cards: Take some time to write notes of gratitude to your favorite caregivers in the community. It's a wonderful way to acknowledge the hard work and care provided that the team gives to your loved one.
  • Make Placecards: Add a personal touch to your Thanksgiving table by making homemade place cards. Get creative with colorful paper, autumn-themed decorations, and handwritten names, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere for your guests.

A note about celebrating with loved ones who have dementia or Alzheimer's disease

If your loved one is in a memory care facility, or has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, the plan for celebrating may look - and feel - a little different. For everyone involved. It's natural for the holidays to feel a bit bittersweet, and for family members to experience a sense of ambiguous grief. While it's important to connect with your loved ones caregivers for their input, there are a few recommendations to share: Keep the gathering small and the atmosphere calm to prevent overwhelming your loved one with dementia.

  • Stick to the routine: Try to visit on a consistent schedule, and don't deviate for holidays. A familiar routine of visitors can reduce anxiety.
  • Lean in to familiar foods: Cook their favorite foods, even if they don't fit the traditional Thanksgiving menu.
  • Stay within their range: Choose activities that match their current abilities, like simple crafts or reminiscing about past Thanksgivings.
  • Keep it small: As much as we might love the idea of lots of family coming by, big crowds of unfamiliar people may not make for the best visit experience. Pay close attention to their comfort and emotions, as changes in routine and environment can be confusing.

Celebrating Thanksgiving with a parent or loved one in assisted living is all about creating a warm and special experience. While they may not be able to join you, there's still a way to honor the holiday and make it memorable by focusing on connection and comfort. By keeping things cozy and heartfelt, you'll find that Thanksgiving in assisted living becomes a time of togetherness and joy, ensuring your loved one feels cherished and connected during this special holiday.

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written by:
Marlena del Hierro

Marlena del Hierro is Vice President of Partnerships and Seniorly’s Lead Gerontologist. Marlena earned her Master of Arts degree in Gerontology from San Francisco State University and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Development from California State University. She also serves in an advisory capacity for Jukebox Health. As Seniorly’s first employee, Marlena is a vocal advocate for evolving the aging paradigm, and is a frequent contributor to public discussions about aging. She has served as a resource for media outlets like WGBH, FOX News, CNBC and the Today Show.

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