Let Them Eat Pie! Tips for a Happy Thanksgiving with Aging Parents

Updated on November 22, 2021

By Amy Cameron O’Rourke, author of The Fragile Years

Thanksgiving’s right around the corner, which means family–and food! This alone can be complicated, but when an aging parent is joining, additional complications can arise due to dietary restrictions as well as physical and cognitive limitations.

Questions appear such as: Should they even eat this dessert? Is this topic ok to bring up? Will they be able to help out in the kitchen this year? 

All of these questions are valid and should be taken into consideration. But above all, in order to have the happiest Thanksgiving possible, it’s important to let go of “shoulds” and expectations, and find ways to engage. Because the heart of Thanksgiving is quality time and communicating with care; while the energy is something to feast on. 

In fact, there is a lot to be learned from letting go of “shoulds” with aging parents outside of the holidays. Sometimes, you need to let them make their own decisions, even if they seem bad or unhealthy. This is something I consistently bring up in my book, The Fragile Years: Proven Strategies for the Care of Aging Loved Ones

Gathered from my 40 years of experience as a professional care manager, here are some tips for a happy thanksgiving with aging parents:

Let them eat cake…well, pie! Let go of concerns about what your older loved one “should” or “should not” eat. If there are foods that make them happy, go with the flow so they can enjoy them. Everyone will benefit. And after all, every day is not a holiday. For special occasions, it is ok to let them have their pie. 

Use food as a way to engage and reminisce. Choose Thanksgiving food items that take a group effort to make. Cooking has more meaning when done with family. Then, while at the Thanksgiving table, tell stories and share memories aboutcherished family recipes or favorite dishes. Record or film the conversations and the cooking if you can, because those videos will become serendipitous years later. Food brings family together because of the memories it creates.

Adjust your expectations. Especially if your loved one is in their 80s or 90s, their physical and mental state might come as a surprise, even if you’ve seen them fairly recently. Accept that in advance. Be flexible with your expectations, as there will always be unexpected moments while aging parents are in their Fragile Years.

Embrace their quirks. Odd clothing, a lack of table manners, abrasive comments: it’s all good! There’s no use trying to change them, so go with the flow. If Great Grandpa Joe forgets to button his shirt – then free the belly button! If Grandma Rose has always been the opinionated type – anticipate her food critiques; who knows, maybe the potatoes really were poorly seasoned. If belching at the table pops up (or worse) – just laugh. Holidays are meant for having fun. Truly the time to live, laugh, and love.

By allowing your aging parents to ‘eat pie’ this Thanksgiving, you’ll be allowing yourself to do the same. Let the non-holidays be the time to buckle down a little more if needed. Until those days, celebrate life and family.


Amy Cameron O’Rourke is a nationally-known pioneer and advocate for senior care in the U.S. She has been a professional care manager for more than 40 years, with 20 of those years at the helm of The Cameron Group (now Arosa), which she founded, as well as O’Rourke & Associates in Orlando, Florida. Amy is also the author of The Fragile Years.

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