An Attitude of Gratitude

Show appreciation toward older adults at Thanksgiving

Now that the coronavirus pandemic is surging again, local public health experts are warning against Thanksgiving travel. Because older adults are at an increased risk of contracting Covid-19, public health officials recommend opting out of in-person celebrations this year. Yet, there are still safe ways to express thanks for the older adults in your life.

At a press conference the week before Thanksgiving, Allison Arwady, MD, MPH, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, urged people to stay home for the holiday. “The bottom line: You should not be traveling. Please do cancel your traditional Thanksgiving plans,” Arwady said. Hospitals warn that they’re nearing full capacity, and people with heart attacks and stroke will soon be competing with Covid-19 patients for intensive care beds.

Even though loved ones may not be present for the festivities, you can still show them how grateful you are to have them in your life. Not sure what to do? Local experts who work daily with seniors share how you can wrap your loved ones in virtual hugs and help them feel less alone this Thanksgiving.

Clever ways to say thank you

“Thanksgiving in this country is steeped in tradition,” says Tish Rudnicki, executive director of North Shore Senior Center in Northfield. “For older adults, it’s an important and wonderful way to reconnect with their families.”

Because connecting can be challenging during the coronavirus pandemic, those who work with older adults offer these ideas for expressing gratitude at a distance.

  • Deliver dinner. If you’re preparing a meal for your immediate family, set aside a mini-Thanksgiving dinner for older relatives and drop it off on their doorstep, Rudnicki says.
  • Send care packages. If you don’t live close to your relatives, show gratitude by mailing them a package with crossword puzzles, a book, and specialty teas to let them know you’re thinking of them.
  • Schedule calls. Organize family members to call your older loved ones throughout Thanksgiving day, Rudnicki suggests. Having a schedule will prevent everyone from phoning at the same time and give your loved ones something to look forward to.
  • Create a gratitude jar. Ask each family member to jot down one reason they are grateful for that older relative; young children can draw pictures. Place all the notes and pictures in a jar and mail it to your loved one, Rudnicki suggests.
  • Stop by for a porch visit. Depending on the risk factors, consider if you’re able to safely visit outside at a distance. If not, even seeing your loved ones through the window or a door can make their day.
  • Plan a joint activity over Zoom. Mike Cooper, business director and co-owner of Naperville Senior Center Adult Day Services, recently made plans with his 96-year-old father who lives on the East Coast to watch a football game together over Zoom. Watching sports together online can be a bonding experience, as can eating Thanksgiving dinner at the same time over Zoom.
  • Reach out to seniors in your neighborhood. Cooper realizes that he’s lucky to share special moments with his father. He suggests reaching out to others, too. “If you don’t have seniors in your life, but you do have seniors living on your block, mow their lawn, rake their leaves, or stop by for a visit and take time to listen,” Cooper says.
  • Have engaging conversations. People like to reminisce about their lives. Prepare some good questions so you can have a meaningful conversation that goes beyond, “Hi, how are you?” and ends at “I’m fine,” Rudnicki says. Ask your loved ones, “What was your favorite Thanksgiving tradition growing up?” If they are experiencing memory loss, cue them with an experience you share.
  • Practice active listening. “Listening is the hard part because there’s always dead space,” Cooper says. This might be even more challenging if a relative has cognitive issues. “It might be a question they may not have answered in decades, or they are having a problem stringing the answer together, so they are working it out. But the important thing is to wait for the answer,” he says.
  • Pitch a yard sign. Follow the lead established by Honor Flight Chicago, a nonprofit organization that celebrates veterans, and set up a yard sign that expresses thanks. Make it a special occasion by gathering friends and family to present the yard sign from a safe distance.
Vietnam Veteran Carl Jones, Jr. with his family, showing off a yard sign from Honor Flight Chicago thanking him for his service.
Vietnam Veteran Carl Jones, Jr. with his family, showing off a yard sign from Honor Flight Chicago thanking him for his service.

Pre-pandemic, Honor Flight Chicago would thank veterans by flying them to Washington, D.C., for a day of honor. Until it’s safe to fly again, the organization is saying thank you to veterans on its waiting list with yard signs and window decals.

Conceived as a simple gesture, the yard signs are anything but, says Doug Meffley, co-director of Honor Flight Chicago. “The veterans are over the moon with getting these signs and the visits and conversations they are having. We’ve had entire neighborhoods come out to be present when the signs are delivered.” To date, the organization has delivered more than 2,200 signs and window decals.

Say thank you all year

Rudnicki believes we should not wait until Thanksgiving to express gratitude toward older loved ones. “I feel like gratitude, especially for older people, should be shown throughout the year,” she says.

Whether you borrow a move from our experts’ playbooks or come up with your own thoughtful way of reaching out, all that matters is you do something to show older adults in your life that you care.