“This year is different, but it’s important to maintain as much normalcy as we can to prevent senior isolation and sadness. We can celebrate in ways that bring seniors joy and make them feel loved,” says Angela Martinez, executive director at Traditions at Reagan Park, a senior living community in Avon, Indiana.
From safe twists on traditional seasonal celebrations to engaging holiday activities for seniors living alone, find top ideas for welcoming the season. Use these activities and expert tips to connect with aging loved ones, reduce boredom, and keep relatives entertained all winter.
Safe, socially distanced holiday activities for elderly loved ones
The weather’s getting colder, and social distancing and mask-wearing may still be observed indoors, but there are plenty of safe ways to stay connected with elderly family members this season. In addition to using tools like Zoom, FaceTime, and phone calls to reduce social isolation and maintain holiday traditions, you can find creative ways to adapt classic seasonal activities. Here are 17 ways to stay connected from afar — or spend time together safely in person — this winter.
Write letters. Most seniors remember a time when snail mail was their main form of communication. Encourage a pen pal program between older relatives and grandchildren. It’s a chance for kids to work on their writing skills and for seniors to tell their stories. Consider using holiday cards or having the kids make their own from construction paper so the letter can double as a decoration.
Organize a recipe swap. We often end up making the same holiday recipes year after year. Try asking friends to send their favorite holiday desserts or sides, then redistribute the recipes to the group. Everyone gets to try something new and then can talk about what they liked in a phone or video chat. If you’re looking for new ideas or inspiration, consider these easy, healthy recipes for seniors.Expert tip: “People may have the same recipe card passed down for generations or know their recipe by heart,” says Martinez. “You can talk about why it’s special or memories from past holidays.”
“Window shop” together. Festive window displays make strolling through malls a fun tradition. Since holiday activities for elderly adults should likely still avoid large, indoor crowds, move that tradition online with Google Shopping’s Window Wonderland, a collection of New York City’s best storefronts. You can scroll to “walk” past displays of twinkling lights, costumed mannequins, and a life-size Santa’s workshop. If your city has outdoor shopping centers, browsing in person may be a safe choice — but remember to dress warmly and wear masks if needed.
Learn about your family history. Looking for a present that doubles as a unique holiday activity for seniors and families? Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe offer at-home testing kits to trace your genetics, sometimes dozens of generations into the past. These results can be a great starting point for conversations about family history.
Decorate in unique ways. Festive decorations brighten up the home and give families an opportunity to reflect on their favorite memories. If you can’t be together in person this year, set up a Zoom call or turn on the speakerphone while you unpack homemade ornaments and stockings. Encourage grandparents and grandkids to make matching decorations, like popcorn garlands or paper chains, and share photos of your final products. Alternatively, if you live nearby and the weather is nice, set up “decoration stations” on the porch or in the yard to craft together while social distancing.Expert tip: “Cutting out snowflakes is always a good idea,” says Martinez. “There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and it brings up memories of snow days.” Plus, paper snowflakes aren’t holiday-specific, so they can stay up all season long.
Start a mini book club. A socially distanced book club with family or friends is a fun way to bond without fear of running out of things to talk about. Try alternating between genres like biography, mystery, and classics, or let everyone take turns recommending favorites.Expert tip: Book clubs aren’t only for adults. Set up Zoom dates for your senior loved one to read favorite holiday books to the grandkids. If you both have a copy, the kids can read along.
Host a holiday party. It’s easy to get friends and family together over the holidays with technology like Zoom and Skype. Plan your party in advance — you can even send out invitations with a recipe for a signature cocktail or dessert. Search online for fun holiday party games for seniors and families.Expert tip: Now that coronavirus vaccines are widely available, use your best discretion for larger gatherings. Consider asking guests to provide a recent negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination. If your elderly loved one is high-risk, having guests wear masks can provide your loved one extra protection.
Stay in touch with porch, stoop, or driveway chats. If you’re not comfortable with indoor events yet, it’s still possible to get together outdoors this winter — bundle up, grab a hot drink and a folding chair, and safely swap stories with friends and neighbors. Call in advance to make sure you’re on the same page for safety measures.Expert tip: While many popular holiday activities this year will rely on technology, screen fatigue can become overwhelming. December activities for seniors should balance connecting via tech with spending time outside, chatting on the phone (without video), and taking time to relax.
Organize a neighborhood gift swap. Are you missing your neighbor’s famous chocolate chip cookies or homemade bloody mary mix this winter? Call around and organize a neighborhood gift swap. Deliver baked goods, flower arrangements, or personal notes to nearby homes. You can leave them in the mailbox or call in advance to see if it’s OK to stop by for a chat.
Host a movie night. Even if family and friends can’t watch a movie together, they can share the experience of a movie night at home. Put on comfy pajamas, pop popcorn, and have everyone stream or download the same movie. Use an app like Netflix Party or Gaze to watch and chat at the same time. If someone doesn’t have streaming services or a smart TV, see if your public library offers DVD delivery or pickup during the pandemic. Let your aging loved one pick a movie they enjoy, and you can talk about it on the phone later.Expert tip: Classic holiday movies are a great choice for family movie nights. They’re comforting, festive, and classics for a reason! Some timeless options include It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Babes in Toyland. If you’re looking for family-friendly nostalgia and laughs, try Home Alone, Gremlins, or Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
Take a virtual trip down memory lane. Google Earth is an amazing way to “travel” during times of social distancing. Look up your loved one’s childhood home or the hotel where they spent their honeymoon. If they have old pictures, compare them with the new ones you find. Explore the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, or visit Central Park for past Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades — minus the crowds! With individual tablets, computers, or phones, family members in different households can “travel” together.
Personalize projects. Search for a holiday craft kit online and have one delivered to each family member’s home. Even with the same materials and instructions, you’ll end up with unique and creative results. Share pictures of your finished projects and compare decorative flourishes. Etsy offers dozens of personalized, inexpensive craft kits from small businesses nationwide.
Visit childhood with old-fashioned treats. It’s easy to find nostalgic candies, like Jinglebits, divinity, and cut rock, from online retailers. Do a virtual taste test together to see what memories the sweet treats inspire. Be sure to have a camera ready if the grandkids have never tried black licorice before!
Hunt for heirloom treasures. Have you always wondered about the strangely patterned vase on Mom’s side table? Or the gnarled antique cane in the umbrella stand? Ask your elderly relative to share the history of favorite antiques and heirlooms around the house over video chat. Something you’ve overlooked for years could have a fascinating history.
Record an interview. Set up a convenient time for grandparents and grandchildren to talk over the phone, on Zoom, or in a safe in-person setting. You can use a free voice recorder feature on the computer or the recording app on a cellphone. Pour some cups of hot cocoa and prepare to learn more about your aging loved one. The recording will be great to listen to years down the road.Expert Tip: Kids can ask about life lessons, first jobs, and favorite memories. Or, for inspiration, they can use this list of 20 questions that grandparents never get tired of hearing. “Connecting with family for an interview or to collect stories is a great opportunity to learn new things about your loved one’s past,” says Martinez.
Sponsor a family’s gifts this holiday season. It always feels better to give than to get — especially during the holiday season. Many organizations are offering Amazon wish lists or online shopping suggestions to send to local families this winter. You could choose to collect toys for a child or select warm clothes for an elderly person living alone. Check your city’s website for local opportunities to give.
Family holiday activities with senior loved ones
If you’re a caregiver living with elderly relatives in your “bubble,” you probably have plenty of time to spend at home with your loved ones. Break up hectic work weeks with these seasonal family activities.
Sort through keepsakes. Do you have keepsake boxes in your garage or attic that haven’t been opened in years? Dust off old yearbooks and family photos to reminisce together. Laugh about old-fashioned trends, and share stories about your childhood.
Bake a tradition. Does your family have a famous fruit cake or buttery shortbread recipe passed down over the years? A warm, inviting kitchen full of holiday treats is a great way to bring generations together. If your aging loved one has the recipe memorized, encourage grandkids to write it down for future use or to make a personalized family cookbook.
Drive through a lights display. Many public parks and neighborhoods go all-out when it comes to holiday lights. Look online or in the paper for lights displays near you and bundle up the family for a leisurely drive through a winter wonderland. Don’t forget to tune the radio to your favorite festive station!Expert tip: “At Traditions at Reagan Park, we take residents on bus outings to look at holiday lights every year,” says Martinez. It’s a fun experience for families, too.
Teach and learn. Some skills, like knitting, crochet, and needlepoint, used to be nearly universal. Now, they’re less commonplace. Younger generations can ask aging parents or grandparents to teach them, making the most of a long winter inside. Yarn crafts help seniors maintain dexterity and focus as well.
Put your green thumbs to work. Natural settings decrease stress and foster well-being. But, in the winter, potted plants and flower arrangements can bring just as much happiness. Indoor gardening is beneficial to seniors, so consider purchasing fresh herb plants for this year’s holiday feasts or ordering bulk flowers to arrange for unique and creative holiday centerpieces.
Encourage friendly competition. Holiday games for seniors — like puzzles, trivia, and game show-style quizzes — inspire competition and keep the mind sharp. Look up trivia questions about the 1950s and 60s, or consider apps like Kahoot and Drawful, which let you customize games and quizzes with your own family facts and traditions. If you prefer something more traditional, Bingo is an exciting go-to.Expert tip: Martinez suggests picking holiday-themed puzzles and games for a fun and festive environment. Consider playing seasonal trivia or fill-in-the-lyrics with holiday songs. Try stopping a holiday song in the middle of the chorus to see who can finish the lyrics the fastest!
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Solo holiday activities for seniors living alone
If your loved one lives alone, or if you’re looking for indoor activities for bored seniors to do while you work, here are some unique ways for older adults to spend their time during the holiday season:
Volunteer. If your loved one enjoys giving back to the community, check out this list of charitable organizations that offer ways to volunteer from home. One option is StoriiTime, which connects isolated seniors with children learning to read.
Play. Brain games for seniors can reduce the likelihood of dementia and improve cognitive health. If your mom is missing her regular bridge nights, virtual activities are a great way to stay mentally stimulated and learn new skills.
Experience culture. Has your loved one ever wanted to visit Paris? Send them on a virtual tour of the Louvre Museum. If they’re a theater lover, suggest tickets to a free virtual performance of The Nutcracker or a Shakespeare play.
Focus on mental health. Many seniors — especially veterans — experience depression in the winter. With the coronavirus still preventing family activities this year, it can be even easier to feel overwhelmed. A Place for Mom created this list of the best mental health apps to try in 2020. With free apps like Headspace, you can follow along with morning meditations or listen to inspiring stories. Other options, like SuperBetter, let you play motivating games to build confidence.
Create for a cause. If your loved one is a painter, knitter, or writer, encourage these creative activities! Finished projects not only create a sense of accomplishment, but they can also contribute to your community. Helpful activities for seniors in isolation may include knitting hats for newborns, sewing felt blankets for the humane society, or writing inspiring poetry for the local paper.
Exercise. Stay energized with fun instructional videos for chair yoga, aerobics, or dance. Being active increases positivity, reduces stress, and promotes cognitive health. Even if indoor classes at senior centers remained canceled due to COVID-19, there are plenty of ways to get moving. YouTube channels like Sit and Be Fit offer classes for seniors with limited mobility, while upbeat Jane Fonda workouts focus on cardio and core strength.Expert tip: Martinez suggests choosing exercise day by day, so there’s no pressure from a preplanned regimen. When the weather’s nice, a walk around the block could add much-needed sunshine to your loved one’s day. If they didn’t sleep well the night before, slow stretches can help them feel energized.
Read. It seems obvious, but reading is a great way to improve brain health and is an ideal indoor activity for seniors. If your loved one doesn’t have the eyesight or attention span to read traditional books, consider interesting podcasts or books on tape. If they’re interested in something nostalgic, try these classic radio series from the 1940s and 50s, available free online.
Wrap gifts. In previous years, the holiday hustle and bustle of traveling, cleaning, and cooking may have left gift wrapping on the back burner. This year, there’s plenty of time to spend on unique papers, bows, and handwritten cards. Personalization and small acts of kindness seem to count now more than ever.
Learn something new. Open Culture offers hundreds of free online courses. Whether your loved one wants to learn about economics, the Italian Renaissance, or computer science, there’s an option available online. Plus, many of the classes are taught by top universities like Harvard and Stanford and come with extra resources like eBooks, audio recordings, and free film libraries.
Holiday activities for seniors with dementia
If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, holidays may be a challenging time for your family. But even seniors experiencing memory problems or cognitive decline can enjoy seasonal festivities. These stimulating, interactive holiday activities for seniors with dementia offer fun, creative, and productive ways to spend time with your loved one this winter. You can also adapt many of the activities above for loved ones with dementia. Be sure to pick or adapt activities that fit with your relative’s current stage of dementia to avoid potential stress or discomfort.
Listen to classics and sing. Whether it’s a record of Christmas classics or Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah CD, put on your favorite holiday music and sing together. Music inspires reminiscence, and it can be especially powerful for seniors with dementia. Even if your loved one can’t recall the words, familiar melodies can inspire happy holiday memories.
Create festive collages. Cut holiday pictures out of magazines, or make copies of family pictures from your aging relative’s childhood. Pick timeless images like fireplaces, stockings, and evergreens. You may also include ribbon, sparkling stars, and handwritten notes. Your loved one can arrange and rearrange them into unique and festive holiday collages.
Smell the scents of the season. Familiar scents can evoke detailed emotional memories of the past. You can use scent therapy for dementia at home, with wax melts, essential oils, and naturally occurring fragrances. From pumpkin pie spice and spruce to the melting beeswax of the menorah or kinara candles, many scents bring out that nostalgic holiday spirit.
Encourage helping out. “Feeling helpful is good for everyone,” Martinez says. If your elderly loved one with dementia can no longer cook a holiday meal, you can suggest they rinse vegetables or sort cranberries. If they used to make beautiful centerpieces, offer a vase with flowers to arrange. These tasks help seniors feel included and fulfilled.
Holiday activities for elderly relatives in senior living
Memory care and assisted living residents can greatly benefit from the creativity and care of their family as well as their senior living community staff members.
“A huge, important part of what we do is be their family and support them in the absence of their real family,” says Martinez.
Celebrating the holidays in senior living communities can make lasting memories, even if you’re unable to visit due to continued COVID-19 restrictions. Check out some senior living holiday party ideas and the following tips to make the holidays work for you and your family this season.
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Include your loved one in holiday planning. They may be interested in reprising your annual family traditions, or they may prefer to switch things up and make memories with new types of celebrations.
Consider friends. One of the biggest benefits of a senior living community is social interaction. When planning celebrations, ask your relative if they want to include new friends and neighbors. If the community allows it, bring in your loved one’s favorite treats and notions to share!
Pick out their perfect gift. Your loved one in an assisted living apartment or memory care room may not have space for too many extra things. Check out this guide to gift ideas for seniors to find the perfect present.
Know before you go. Coronavirus precautions and procedures differ from community to community. Be sure you’re prepared to comply with the rules and find out if there’s any documentation you and your loved one need before re-entering the community.
Claire Samuels is a senior copywriter at A Place for Mom. She’s written or contributed to more than 100 articles about senior living and healthy aging, with a special focus on dementia and memory care. Before writing about seniors, she worked as an account executive for independent and assisted living facilities across the Midwest. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Davidson College, where she focused on literature and media studies.
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