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5 activities to do with seniors that will lift their spirits — and yours

Here’s a sobering statistic: By age 75, over 35% of older adults get no physical activity outside of work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But research shows that physical activity and mental stimulation help seniors stay mobile and independent longer.

It can be challenging to find motivation to participate in regular exercise, especially as you age and your energy may naturally decline. Thankfully, as family or professional caregivers, we can help. Singing, walking and laughing with my grandmother in her later years are some of my most cherished memories. Here are several suggestions for impactful activities that will benefit you and the older adults in your life. 

1. Ask them to help with small caretaking tasks

If you’re caring for an older relative, asking them to contribute to the household in small ways — whether it’s picking up a grandchild from school or feeding your cats when you go on vacation — checks two boxes: It’s one less thing for you to do, and it provides them with a sense of purpose. It can even reduce the symptoms of dementia, according to a 2014 study by the Journal of the North American Menopause Society that looked at the impact of grandparenting on the brain.

“It makes sense, that having a strong sense of purpose — having a reason to get up in the morning, knowing that people are depending upon you, feeling that you are making important contributions and possibly even making a difference in this world — could contribute to healthy aging,” says Dr. Scott Kaiser, a board-certified family physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

Something that may seem small to you could be a big deal to a senior with a great deal of time on their hands. In my family, for example, my grandmother was responsible for taking my cousin and me to camp each day. My parents framed it as a favor (“It would be helpful if you could…”) rather than dismissing it (“Here is a way to keep yourself busy”) to highlight the importance of the task. It was less than a 10-minute drive, but it made a world of difference in her mood.

Loved ones with decreased independence can get this same feeling of contributing by helping with pets or plants.   

2. Schedule a weekly game night

You’re never too old for a good competitive challenge. Growing up, my grandmother and I made a point to watch “Jeopardy!” every day. In the earlier stages of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, we would treat each episode as a competition. The winner got bragging rights. Both of us benefited from the mental stimulation and the quality time together.

Science has confirmed how useful these pastimes can be. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2018 that found that daily participation in intellectual activities helps lower the risk of dementia for those 65 and older.

That said, set aside time to play Scrabble, UNO, puzzles or try AARP’s Staying Sharp Brain Health Challenges. Making it a weekly occurrence will send several messages: It will remind them that you still see them as worthy competition, which can boost their sense of self, and it also says that you value the time you spend together enough to establish a routine.

3. Encourage them to volunteer with you

If you’re a family caregiver, volunteering with your older loved one is a win-win, Kaiser says, as it provides seniors with the chance to gain a greater sense of purpose while also doing good for others.  

“While volunteering is not the only pathway to purposeful living — people also find meaning and purpose at work, through family relationships and a variety of social activities — the research on volunteerism clearly demonstrates its rich benefits and its powerful role as a valuable ingredient for healthy aging,” Kaiser notes.

What kind of volunteer work is best? It depends on your interests. Habitat for humanity, church events, school/PTA functions — there are so many opportunities to lace up those boots and work together. Remember, community volunteering doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. It can be as small as making desserts to sell at the school fundraiser.

4. Listen to their favorite music together

My grandmother loved Sam Cooke. I knew all of her favorite songs and spent hours singing songs with and later to her. Alzheimer’s patients show promising outcomes for the future of music therapy — and who doesn’t love a good song?

You can sing together, or just listen to classics that were popular during the senior’s younger days. They will benefit from the comfort and familiarity of the sounds of their earlier years, and you may gain a few new favorite tunes.

5. Get some fresh air

The benefits of physical exercise are well-documented but so are the benefits of getting outside. Research published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine notes that increasing time spent outdoors could result in more active lifestyles and lower chronic disease risk.

If you’re looking for ideas, consider the three most popular outdoor activities among older adults, according to the CDC: yard work, walking and gardening.