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

Nov. 20, 2018

Here’s a sobering statistic: By age 75, one in three men and one in two women get no physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But 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 loved ones, 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 your aging loved ones.

1. Ask them to help with small caretaking tasks

Asking an aging loved one 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. Encourage them to volunteer with you

The only thing that feels better than knowing you’re giving back, is doing it with a loved one.

Volunteering is a win-win, Kaiser says, as it provides aging and elderly loved ones 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 says.

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.

3. Schedule a weekly game night (or watch Jeopardy!)

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. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study earlier this year that found that daily participation in intellectual activities helps lower the risk of dementia for those 65 and older.

Setting aside time to play Scrabble, UNO or puzzles — try AARP’s Staying Sharp “brain games”

— can be great for both of your brains. 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.

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 your loved one’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 outdoor activities. Prioritize getting seniors outside as often as possible. Not only is the exercise good for the physical self, it can also help boost their mood. The CDC states that walking and gardening or yard work are the most popular outdoor activities among the 65 and older crowd. When they get tired of walking, find a nearby bench to people watch together.

Local senior centers are a great place to check for other opportunities to get your loved one outside in a group setting — and maybe even make some new friends.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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