Even the Turkey Left the Table: Family Gatherings at Thanksgiving

Even the Turkey Left the Table: Family Gatherings at Thanksgiving

by

L.T.Force, Ph.D.

Gerontologist


Well, it’s that time of year. The holidays are upon us - and we gather with family and friends. Over the last few years, I have been asked to write a news column about: “The impact of Holidays on persons with Alzheimer’s disease.” The purpose of the news article was to provide some insight and guidance for families - as they include family members with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia into the traditional festivities. The overarching concern was how to create a celebratory day - when there may be additional people (family and friends) present. The advice was clear, direct and simple, i.e., try to make the day as predictable.... as much as possible, minimize extraneous noise and commotion.... as much as possible.... and be sure to include the person in the activities of the day....as much as possible. This advice sounds reasonable for any family gathering....at any time....with or without a family member with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia present.

Family gatherings can be a joyous event - where families look forward to the Holiday season. However, there are individuals who would love to see the development of a calendar year - that would exclude any and all opportunities (Birthdays, Holidays, Anniversaries, Graduations...etc.) where a family gathering is expected. From these scenarios - “What do we know? We know that when families work - they really work and when families don’t work....they really don’t work!”

In the field of psychology there are multiple theoretical perspectives attempting to explain or interpret individual behavior. Although these different perspectives - provide a “unique and different lens" in contrast to each other - a common theme across these theories - is the understanding and emphasis on the fact: “all behavior occurs in a family system”. Now for some theories - the focus is on childhood patterns that were established early-on. For other theories, childhood patterns are recognized - but a greater emphasis is placed on the: “here and now” - a solution-focused future-oriented approach. Whatever the perspective you align yourself with - remember: “when families work - they really work and when families don’t work....they really don’t work!”

From a: “Family-Systems Perspective”, we know every family has: ‘a currency’, every family has toxic issues....every family has secrets....however, every family has strengths and every family has traditions. As I tell my students: “if you feel your family doesn’t have traditions....when your family members start to gather at the Thanksgiving Dinner Table....immediately head to the chair at the 'head of the table' and take a seat". I ask them to reflect on how that would ‘play-out’ at the dinner table. My students laugh and smile - because for many of them this: “bold and brazen act” would not be acceptable - they would directly be instructed to: “remove yourself from that seat...that is not where you sit....that seat at the ‘head of the table’ is for: " ________________” (you fill in the name or person from your own family-system, i.e., Father, Mother, Grandparent, Aunt, Uncle, Guardian....etc.....that sits at the: 'head of your table') ....all families have traditions....

The Thanksgiving Holiday is a Holiday all to itself. Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa where there are exchanges of gifts - Thanksgiving the gifts are: presence, conversation, food and drink - with no distractions or focus on wrapped gifts - just a focus on: presence, conversation, food and drink. One Thanksgiving, we ran out of milk for coffee and dessert. I drove to a local gas station to buy the milk. When I entered the gas station there was a local Deputy Sheriff buying a cup of coffee. We started to talk and I asked her how her day was going. She said: “fine, but I’m so glad it’s almost 4:00pm - that is when my shift is over. I hate working the evening shift on Thanksgiving”. I asked her, Why? She told me why. She said, what she has commonly seen is: “families typically get together early in the afternoon for Thanksgiving - everything goes well early on....they laugh....they drink....they drink some more....they eat.....they drink some more....they drink some more.....things are said.....arguments erupt....fights begin on the front lawn....and then the Police arrive. This is the reason - I’m so glad I’m off-duty at 4:00pm. Happy Thanksgiving!” Thanksgiving the gifts are: presence, conversation, food and drink - with no distractions or focus on wrapped gifts - just a focus on: presence, conversation, food and drink.

A few years ago, a friend of mine informs me - he will be joining his adult children and their families for Thanksgiving. He tells me his intention is to let his family know - he has: "met someone and he intends to marry her in the Spring". The only problem is - his adult children and family have not met her as of yet....and here he was: ‘marrying her’ without even introducing her to them. I told him: "I didn’t think this is a good idea - you may want to wait on that announcement - maybe hold-off until Christmas - when people would be distracted or focused on exchanges of wrapped gifts - and not necessarily toggled to a table at Thanksgiving". He decided not to take my advice and in the quiet of the moment at the Thanksgiving Table he made his brave announcement. Well, at that point the conversation became very loud and animated. The volume increased across the table and the indignation increased about: “how could you tell us you are getting married to someone we haven’t even met!!!!” Immediately, there was the sound of chairs loudly being pushed into the table....people yelling at each other....accusations being made....tears flowing....people quickly leaving the dining room table....doors slamming.... and leaving the house. In one moment.... there was a family gathered together to celebrate a Holiday - in the next moment - it was only my friend and the Turkey surrounding the table. Within moments....even the Turkey decided to leave the room....and left the table.

Here we are, ready or not - people are preparing, people are assembling - game on - it’s the Holiday Season - it’s Thanksgiving! But wait, it’s a different type of year....a different type of event....a different type of gathering - it is the: “Year of COVID"....and with that designation comes new guidelines, new policies....and new laws about assembling. So it may not be personalities that are the defining motivation to bring families together or keep families apart - it is the: “Year of COVID". Two things, first, regardless of a: ‘real-time gathering’ or a ‘virtual gathering’.... Thanksgiving.... the gifts are: presence, conversation, food and drink - with no distractions or focus on wrapped gifts - just a focus on: presence, conversation, food and drink. Second, the Turkey will return to the table again next year ....it always does. Thanksgiving....the gifts are: presence, conversation, food and drink - with no distractions or focus on wrapped gifts - just a focus on: presence, conversation, food and drink....the most important gifts ....all to themselves....


Happy Thanksgiving!


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