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Caring at home? Ways to keep elders active

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

It is a recurring question among people who care for elders at in their homes. What types of activities can elders do at home? At issue is keeping chronically ill elders engaged in some form of daily activity, re-directing emotional neediness or tendencies to complain, or just staving off boredom for elders who are socially isolated for a good part of each day. With a little thought and creativity, caregivers' options are practically infinite.

Some Elders are Energizer Bunnies

It's been 2 decades since one of my friends cared for his Mom in his home. Back then, his job required frequent travel. While he was on the road, much of his caregiving support to his mother happened over the telephone. He called her often to check on her. When he traveled, if I happened to be in town, I made it a point to call his mother at least every couple days to say hello.


His mother was always cheerful and loved visiting on the telephone. She talked me through her six daily insulin injections routine, enlightening me about required insulin injection site rotation and the long-term effects on her skin. I enjoyed talking and laughing with her. I actively listened for cues about how she might have spent her days otherwise.

While she could still see, she enjoyed reading and going through magazines. Eventually she lost her sight. Remarkably, in spite of blindness, she continued holding her own while at home alone during the day. To the end of her living at home days, in spite of her inability to see, she took the same magazines she once read and cheerfully cut shapes using only her imagination and cheerful spirit. She envisioned collages and scrapbooks. Her mental clarity remained intact.

Just as in childhood, where some children are outstanding at independently finding ways to entertain themselves, the same trait is evident in the lives of some elders. On the other hand, there are just as many adults, including elders, who easily become disengaged, bored to tears, and need assistive support in figuring out things to do when they become anxious, restless or bored.

No Elder Boredom Here

M.O.M. I call them M.O.M. - Mother O' Mine activities. Some of the activities are inspired by what my mother seems to enjoy independent of any prompting from me. Other activities may simply reflect my going with the flow of my days of care, individual and family style. Depending on the extent of your elder's physical or cognitive impairment, safety considerations and possible medical restrictions, some of my M.O.M. activities may not be a good fit.

  • After meals and removal of dirty dishes from the dining table, choose a single newspaper story to read out loud to each other for possible running commentary. If your elder is so inclined and able to do so, have him or her read out loud. This activity also can be limited to reading only two or three sentences in a news story to avoid information overload to your elder. I remember my parents and some of their generational contemporaries enjoying reading Sunday news stories to each other and their children across family dining tables and in their living rooms. Some elders still may enjoy this practice with their caregivers.
  • In-home hairstyling days with running cable television news analysis, commentary and sharing, just like a hair salon - maybe even better. Mom sits in my comfy office chair whenever I cut and style her hair. We face the television and play catch-up on the news for as long as we can stand it. Hairstyling time is just enough to whet our appetite without the endless redundancy that is offered in the news these days.
  • Washing and drying dishes, putting them away and wiping-down the kitchen counter are routines Mom enjoys.
  • Cyber visits to zoos around the world. Watching streaming videos of some animals live can be a joint or solo leisure activity for elders and/or caregivers. We also share memories of zoos we have visited in the past.
  • Folding, sorting, and putting away clean laundry is something Mom enjoys without ever being asked.
  • Daily garden re-discovery and renewal time is in the realm of enjoying watching fish in a home aquarium for hours at a time. Left to her own devices, my mother would enjoy watching the garden grow for the duration. Her love of the garden makes me stop and smell the roses in my life, literally and figuratively each day. Don't forget container gardening opportunities - even one potted plant activity is enjoyed by some elders.
  • Sorting and organizing content in drawers is a huge help to me. It is not a category that Mom thinks of on her own, but I never hesitate to ask her to help me keep some drawers better organized. She has always done so cheerfully.
  • Sweeping our driveway, garage or outside our front door also offers an opportunity to chit-chat with neighbors. Although she used to sweep outside without ever being asked, Mom seldom thinks of sweeping now unless she sits outside. When she does, I can count on the front of our home being spotless. Although she otherwise uses a cane when walking, she takes her time while sweeping which helps her balance. She also intuitively uses the broom handle to occasionally help her balance and rest. She knows when she needs to take a break or call it a day.
  • Trash round-up help welcome. Each day once Mom is up and about in the house she independently enjoys trash round-up and consolidation from all trash receptacles upstairs. Once done, she leaves the large plastic bag somewhere upstairs before she moves on to whatever else she can see in life. No problem there. I wouldn't want her lifting trash bags while negotiating stairs.

Years ago, one of my neighbors said something that made me think. My neighbor told me that she likes that I allow my mother to do as much as Mom can on her own. I didn't realize that I had been doing just that until my neighbor shared her perceptions with me.

Caregiving support is a little like the Americans With Disabilities Act. There is no need for me to step-in or do everything when an elder is able to perform - with or without reasonable accommodation. That's how the ADA puts it.

It just takes a few creative care accommodations along the way.