Senior Living Activities: Reinventing Family Fun


by Jeannette Franks, PhD, 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.

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 a move to independent or assisted living communities can alter family dynamics. Here are some things you can do to help ease the transition.


It’s likely that some of your favorite family activities can be replaced with very similar pastimes:

  • Share a Meal
    If you’re accustomed to cooking together, for example, try sharing a meal at the new community. 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.
  • Play Cards or Board Games
    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).
  • Look Through Photo Albums
    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.
  • Reminisce
    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.
  • Get Outside: Most residents of retirement and long-term care communities like to get outside and into 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!


Sometimes people expect their loved ones to take on entierly new social personas when they move to senior living communities, which can result in worry or disappointment. It’s important to realize that if your mother has never expressed the desire to play Bingo or go swing dancing, it may well be that she’s simply not interested in those activities and never will be.

On the other hand, 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.


It can be hard to predict what loved ones might find 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 elerly people who adored poetry early in life now find it ridiculous.

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 challenging and important — whatever you can do to improve the quality of time spent together with elderly family members is well worth the investment of thought and effort.

Last Updated: April 2019