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Senior Living Activies: Reinventing Family Fun

Last Updated: April 4, 2013

By Jeannette Franks, PhD

Whether you are crossing the country or crossing the street to visit your loved one in her new home, it can be difficult to adjust your familiar relationship with someone who has moved to a new environment. Nursing homes can be especially challenging, but even independent or assisted living communities can alter family dynamics.

Where your parents might once have been completely in charge of the kitchen, the garden, and everything from the plumbing to the gutters, they may now feel like guests in their own home. Some retirement communities offer a "hospitality" lifestyle, where amenities and senior living activities are provided just like room service in a fine hotel. In the past you and your parents may have shared everyday tasks together like mowing the lawn or car maintenance. Things like meal preparation and cleanup were done as a family-now most of those jobs are done by staff in the community. In this new environment, you will have to find new activities to share and ways to make a visit mutually rewarding and meaningful.

Reinventing treasured activities

Every family is different, but what did yours enjoy together before the big move? Cards? Movies? Family meals? Creative projects?

To start with, a shared meal in the facility is one of the easiest of senior living activities to do together. My dad, John, and his table mates in assisted living were glad to have me there at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and the staff was always gracious, whether I was expected or just popped in when I had an extra hour. If a place is particularly rigid about dropping in, talk to the administrator. It is, after all, your loved one's home. Perhaps your family was different, but in my childhood home my mother was delighted to have unexpected visitors, and it was always acceptable to squeeze in another plate at the table.

Even though my Uncle Mac had been in his Life Care Community for several years, it wasn't until an East Coast trip that I was able to visit him there. Several cousins joined us and we played the card game "up and down the river" (I think some call this game "oh, hell") as we had at many Thanksgivings and other gatherings in the past. Everyone had a delightful time. He said with some sadness and nostalgia, "This is the first time I've played that game here." Well, he waited too long! But sometimes it takes an outsider to get things going (and to bring the cards).

Most families enjoy going over photo albums. With dementia, especially Alzheimer's, the long-term memory remains intact well after someone is no longer able to tell you what they had for breakfast. Seeing familiar faces from long ago sparks happy memories. Photos of weddings, babies, pets, and children are usually enjoyed, even if the person doesn't remember who the people in the pictures are. My neighbor, Joan, whose mom is in a dementia care unit, discovered that not only did her mother take great pleasure in paging through the family albums, but the aides also took the time to leaf through them with her and noted in the daily log that it was a mutually enjoyable activity.

Ask your family member to describe his or her wedding, or how they met their spouse or got engaged. These stories are usually a joy to recall, regardless of how many times they may have been told before.

Encouraging a family member to recount his or her memories is important on several levels. Creating an oral history, a tape recording, a video, or a written memoir can help the elderly put life's joys and traumas in order. Remembering global as well as personal events such as World War II, the Depression, family history both pleasant and difficult, and births and deaths, are therapeutic activities that can bring comfort. This can also be useful for an adult child striving to comprehend family dynamics, and is a great gift to the grandchildren.

When my dad's Alzheimer's started to make it more challenging to find activities that were mutually enjoyable, I began to bring little gifts when I visited. Opening a gift-wrapped package is a joy for most people of all ages, and even if it was just socks or chocolate, the activity was pleasurable for my dad and got visits off to a good start. Fresh flowers also brighten a room and are a gift you can give every week.

Get outside!

Most residents of retirement and long-term care communities like to get outside their neighborhood. Even if lunch in the facility has already been paid for, a restaurant outing is usually fun. How would you like to eat in the same dining room everyday, three times a day? Shopping, movies, car trips, or the library are also often appreciated.

Even the frailest person can benefit from this type of activity, although the difficulty of transfers, wheelchairs, and walkers can be daunting. A quick trip to an outside deck to sit in the sun for fifteen minutes can be beneficial in a number of ways. Don't discount the power of the sun to lift spirits-and to help prevent osteoporosis with natural vitamin D!

Participate in activities

Was your mom ever into bingo? If not in the past, then probably not now. Is your parent an introvert or extravert? Not much about that is likely to change. While it is not impossible, someone who did not routinely exercise probably is not going to start going to chair aerobics in late life.

In other words, it's fine for people to continue to be who they are.  

If you really think participation in new senior living activities might improve your mom's quality of life and she resists, you could plan to do it together for a while. For example, if you think an art class is just the ticket-take it together. If you are convinced that exercise will make her feel better (and it will!), you might schedule yourself to take some classes with her. Usually the staff will be pleased to see you too.

Sometimes the same activity becomes even more appealing because of a change of venue. For example, Lynn, a social worker, invited her mom to join in her own book group. Regardless of the fact that there was a book group in the retirement community, the chance to read and discuss the same books as her daughter, in the company of people of a different age and from outside the retirement community, became a cherished experience for Lynn's mother.

How often?

Most of us are guilt infused and never feel we do enough for a loved person. Many of us tend to do too much. Remember that your own well-being and the happiness of the other significant people in your life are important too. Here's a tongue-in-cheek guideline: Every day is too much and twice a year is not enough. Anything in between that works for your situation is fine.

For long-distance family members, a phone call can be more rewarding than a letter or card. Mom wants to hear your voice. Again, no rules as to how often is often enough.

Nor are there rules about what will create a successful visit. It's hard to predict what your loved one now finds enjoyable. For example, for some families reading aloud was a typical activity that everyone enjoyed and they continue to do so. Some families would think you were out of your mind if you started reciting poetry aloud. Some seniors who never heard a poem aloud suddenly find it a delightful activity; some old people who adored poetry early in life now find it ridiculous. In other words, it's not helpful to generalize. Every family is as individual as a fingerprint.

But you're not without resources. Ask your family member what he or she wants to do. Ask staff for suggestions on available senior living activities in the area. Check with friends and other family members. These years are challengingandimportant-what you can do to improve the quality of time spent is well worth the investment of thought and effort. 

Jeannette Franks, PhD, is a passionate gerontologist who teaches at University of Washington and Bastyr University; she is the author of a book on assisted living and numerous articles. 

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