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How Family Caregivers Can Keep Loved Ones Active at Home During Coronavirus Outbreak

Practical advice to help compensate for lack of socialization and cognitive stimulation

Adult woman doing a puzzle with her mother

Fotosearch/Getty Images

En español | As senior centers, adult day centers and other programs geared toward older adults temporarily close their doors, family caregivers are hunkering down with their loved ones to help “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus. Changing routines, missing socialization opportunities and lacking cognitive stimulation may become increasingly problematic as time goes on.

Deyon Murray, of Boynton Beach, Florida, for example, says her newly relocated father, 88 — now her housemate — is feeling the void of activities. He was used to going to a senior center daily but it is closed. “I can see where he's bored already and I have to sleep in the day because I'm a night hospice nurse,” she says. “I don't know how to keep him occupied."


For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


If you and your loved ones are stuck at home and cabin fever is setting in, here are some ideas to help prevent boredom and stay active.

1. Read and share

Help your loved ones pick out a new book or re-read an old favorite. Better yet, dig into a series of books, like westerns, mysteries and historical romances. If your loved one no longer reads, try reading aloud to them. Many libraries also have audiobooks or digital ebooks available for download to an app like Libby or Kindle. You can also set up a book club with just the two of you or enlist a larger group of family or friends to discuss the book via phone or video chat.

2. Write cards and letters

This is a good time to surprise friends and family with a greeting card, or send thank-you notes to military service members via Support Our Troops. “I decided to look past what I'm feeling [about the coronavirus outbreak]. I will be sending two friends who are locked down in nursing facilities, and a small number of prisoners, cards of encouragement this week,” says Jeanie Olinger, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who cares for her son, who was injured in a car accident; her mother and aunt live in separate nursing facilities. “There's just something funny about focusing on others — [it] seemed to lift my spirits a bit to reach out."

3. Document life stories

Take this quiet time to gather your loved one's history. You can ask questions and write down their responses, or they can write their own. Record stories by using an app, like StoryCorps, which archives all stories for the Library of Congress, and also has do-it-yourself guidance to make your own recordings. The Legacy Project offers an exhaustive list of life interview questions to prompt answers. You may be surprised at what you learn about a family member or friend's early lives, first loves and work or military experiences.

4. Put together a jigsaw puzzle or play a game

Find a puzzle with an image your care partner will like and puzzle pieces that are an appropriate size for his or her skills. Board and card games are also interactive, stimulate the brain, involve motor skills and hopefully will generate some laughs. Kathy Ann, of Kansas City, Kansas, says she and her husband are keeping busy — and entertained. “We stay home and hibernate like a couple of old bears, playing Words with Friends [and] Yahtzee,” she says. If your loved ones struggle with complicated games, just make up your own rules — it's all about having fun.

5. Listen to podcasts, watch movies and TV shows

Now's the time to see all the movies on your must-watch list — binge-watch a new TV series together, or rewatch a beloved one. If your loved ones struggle to follow a plot, try the old movie musicals like The Sound of Music or Meet Me in St. Louis. Music-focused TV programs work well too, like The Lawrence Welk Show (for oldies but goodies), Austin City Limits for an eclectic mix, or religious programs for faith-based music.

6. Take an online adventure

Virtually tour museums or explore outer space with NASA's free online video and image library. From bees to birds to bison to bears you can observe nature and animals with Explore.org's livecams. Relive your own adventures by flipping through photo albums and videos. And dream about (and plan) your next adventure — near or far — when the coronavirus social distancing advisories are a thing of the past.

7. Enjoy music — and move

Music to match or change our moods can be so therapeutic. Watch and listen to all genres of music on YouTube videos, NPR Music or your local PBS station — from full concerts to single songs. Many musicians are offering online concerts during the coronavirus outbreak via Facebook Live or their websites. Music is a great motivator, too. Yolanda Kellum Greer, of Aurora, Colorado, uses music to keep her mother moving: “We're playing Mom's albums for our musical exercise time,” she says. “Yesterday it was Gladys Knight and the Pips!”

8. Get outside

You may be staying home, but that doesn't mean you can't get outside (weather permitting) and get some fresh air. Start a garden, enjoy a sunset, walk around the block (health permitting), or just sit on the porch. Jaye Smith, of Tucson, Arizona, is caring for her parents and planning to broaden outside activities. “If the weather cooperates, we may take a road trip for wildflower viewing,” she says.

9. Launch a project

Now is a good time for spring cleaning, craft and organization projects. Karen George, of Houston, Texas, says her husband is in the high-risk category for coronavirus. “I shut down my business at the end of 2019 to focus on taking care of him so I'm purging junk from my office, then I'll go on to the next room. We've lived here 14 years, so I've collected lots of junk.” Craft projects can renew a sense of creativity, including coloring, scrapbooking, sewing, sanding wood projects and painting them, and organizing photos. It's also a great time to create a cookbook by gathering recipes from all branches of the family.

10. Get back to basics

Diane Beard Zawalick, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, lives with her husband, who has moderate stage dementia. “We are watching movies and enjoying time to just ‘Be’ and hang at home,” she says. Down time is a rarity for many of us. Make the most of it by connecting with loved ones, absent some of the distractions of our everyday lives. Psychologist Kathleen Cairns, of West Hartford, Connecticut, is having telephone sessions with clients and staying at home with her mother, who lives with her and is currently in hospice care. “It feels nice in a way to go back to a simpler way of life,” she says, “We are reading, watching movies and TV series; I'm walking my dog. This is time with my mother I might not otherwise be spending with her."

Amy Goyer is AARP's family and caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Connect with Amy on amygoyer.comFacebookTwitter, in AARP's Online Community and in the AARP Facebook Family Caregivers Group.

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