How to Help Your Elderly Parents Engage with Their World

Is your elderly loved one unable or unwilling to pursue the activities that once brought them joy? Here’s a four-step process you can use to help them re-engage:

Your mom used to love fishing, but now she complains that her hands are too unsteady to hold the fishing rod.

Your dad, who once prided himself on golfing without a cart, now seems more and more content to spend entire afternoons in his recliner.

Sound familiar?

Physical decline is a natural part of the aging process. Anybody fortunate enough to enjoy a proverbial long life will inevitably face a decline in one or more areas. For most of us, it starts slowly, and we instinctively adapt. Take Sue, an avid athlete, who at age 50 began to feel how running strained her knees, so she took up cycling instead. And then there’s Mark, who at age 53, started wearing eyeglasses all day long, not just when he’s reading.

Over time, though, the physical changes of aging become more significant—and more complicated, because they’re combined with mental and/or emotional issues. It can get harder for elderly parents to adapt, and far more challenging for them to continue pursuing activities of daily living that bring joy and keep them happy.

What Is Adaptation and How Can It Help?

As the family caregiver, you know how difficult it is when your aging parents are no longer able or unwilling to pursue the activities that once brought them joy.

After all, you want the best quality of life possible for your loved ones, and know very well that being involved in activities that have meaning and give them pleasure boosts their quality of life. So it’s only natural to want to help your parents re-engage in their favorite activities and hobbies, and it’s incredibly tempting to try to nudge them along in that direction.

Unfortunately, in my 30-plus years of working with families and their aging parents, I’ve seen that all too often, nudges like those are met with an almost reflexive resistance.

Why? Because from the senior’s perspective, their limitations are insurmountable, and more often than not, they see the situation as “all or nothing.” The mom who used to love watercolor painting is thinking, “Since I can’t hold the brush the way I used to, why should I even try to paint?” For the dad who used to golf, it’s, “My hip bothers me when I walk too much, so it’s better if I sit and watch TV.” To the senior, the circumstances limiting them are very black and white.

And the result is a stalemate. As the family caregiver, you try to prod your elderly loved one to get more active. But your elderly loved one rejects your advice because they see the situation as hopeless.

Is there another way? Can the stalemate be broken? Absolutely! But to get past the impasse, you and your elderly parent are going to need to “embrace the gray.” In other words, you must realize that situations like these are not black or white. There is a middle ground, and that middle ground is made possible because of adaptation.

By “adaptation,” I mean modifying the activity so that it’s more accessible. Just as my friends Sue and Mark did, your elderly loved one can use adaptive measures to re-engage with their hobbies and pursue the activities they find pleasurable.

How to Help Your Aging Parent Engage in Meaningful Activities

Here’s a four-step process you can use to help your elderly loved one adapt and re-engage with the activities that once brought them joy:

Step 1: Identify activities.

What activities did your elderly parent enjoy in the past? Was it playing an instrument, reading, sewing, fishing? Make a list of all of them, but initially, focus on only one or two.

Step 2: Evaluate the obstacles.

Determine why your elderly parent can’t pursue their favorite activity anymore. What’s getting in the way? Figure out if the obstacles are:

  • Physical (limited dexterity, mobility);
  • Cognitive (trouble with the complexity of the hobby, focus or memory); or
  • Emotional (depression).

Keep in mind that more than one of these factors may limit your loved one. If so, the most prominent obstacle may be that they simply don’t have the caregiver assistance they need to engage in a particular activity.

Step 3: Research ideas for adaptation.

Think about how you could adapt your elderly parent’s favorite activity to ensure that they’ll still have a positive experience, even though they’re doing things a bit differently. Is adaptive equipment all that’s required, or would the assistance of others be helpful, too?

For the best answers to these questions, consult with an Aging Life Care Professional™ or Geriatric Care Manager, an Occupational Therapist or an Activity Specialist. They have the expertise and experience to find the adaptations best suited to the needs of your elderly loved one.

Step 4: Create an activity schedule.

Once you’ve identified an adaptive solution, you need to make sure your elderly parent re-engages with the activity. Use a schedule, or what I call a “leisure calendar,” to keep your loved one engaging on a regular, or semi-regular, basis. Look for ways to string together a few enjoyable adapted activities so that time can be marked in more meaningful ways.

Learn More from These Adaptation Examples

To illustrate how the four-step process works, let me tell you about Margaret, who used to love gardening in her yard. In her younger days, Margaret would work the soil and plant vegetables every spring, but then a stroke left her with impaired vision and only partial mobility.

Limited to a wheelchair, Margaret spent most of her time in her house, watching TV and eating. She refused even to entertain the idea of gardening—the one activity that brought so much joy throughout her life—since she couldn’t imagine navigating across the ground in a wheelchair.

Margaret became increasingly withdrawn and depressed… until she was introduced to an adaptive solution.

Working with her son, we at Arosa built Margaret a wheelchair-level planting box for her patio and helped her fill it with soil and vegetable plants. Almost immediately, Margaret asked for two more planting boxes and many more plants.

Before long, we had helped Margaret create a robust patio garden that included, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow peppers, carrots and assorted herbs (basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme). We also attached a lighted magnifying glass to her wheelchair, so Margaret could better tend to the plants and harvest her “crop.”

With the help of a working caregiver, Margaret now spends two hours each day in her garden, and the difference in her demeanor is significant. Not only is she more engaged with her son and his family, but she also has started phoning her friends more, and her quality of life has improved dramatically.

Thinking about Margaret reminds me of one of the most remarkable examples of adaptation I’ve ever seen. It took place in Holland, where there was an 87-year-old nursing home resident who used to love riding horses. Caring professionals created a safe, bed-like device that could be attached to two horses, allowing this senior to enjoy the sensation of riding, despite her physical frailty.

Over the three decades of my professional career, I have seen time and time again how adaptation can help seniors accept the aging process with more grace and ease, and I’m proud to have positively impacted so many lives by assisting older adults to stay connected to the activities and people that matter most.

If you want to help your elderly parent re-engage with their world, I encourage you to identify the one or two activities they used to enjoy. Then, reach out to other family members or a third-party professional, such as an Care Professional or a geriatric care manager, to help you brainstorm practical ways to adapt that activity and make it more accessible for your loved one.

Adaptation will help your elderly parent stay engaged with meaningful activities they care about, and that in turn, will help them maintain a positive outlook and a healthy sense of well-being.

© Arosa

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