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How Family Caregivers Can Keep Loved Ones Active

Practical advice to boost mood, socialization and cognitive stimulation


spinner image Adult woman doing a puzzle with her mother

My parents lived with me as I cared for them, and I embraced the fact that caregiving went well beyond administering medications, giving personal care and going to doctor appointments. Acting as their activities director was a critical part of my role. It was vital for their mental, physical and cognitive health that they remain active, engaged and socializing to their greatest possible extent. I have a background as a music therapist and served as an activities director in adult day care centers at the beginning of my career, so it came naturally to me. But many caregivers struggle to find things for their loved ones to do.

Here are some activities gleaned from my experience and from members of the AARP Family Caregivers Discussion Group on Facebook.

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1. Read and share

Help your loved ones pick out a new book or reread an old favorite. Better yet, dig into a series of books, like Westerns, mysteries or historical romances. If your loved ones no longer read, try reading aloud to them (I read the poems of James Whitcomb Riley to Dad — his favorite poet from his home state of Indiana). Or they can listen to audiobooks using a book app. Many libraries offer audiobooks or digital ebooks for free — and you may be able to download them to an app like Libby or A Library Thing. Bee Heather’s mom requests books she wants to read on her Kindle Fire e-reader and Bee checks them out from a digital library, sending them to her mom’s device. “She is an avid reader at 88!” Heather adds. “She also loves doing jigsaw puzzles on her Fire.”

Try creating a book club with just the two of you by reading the same books and discussing them — or enlist a larger group of family or friends to discuss the book via phone or video chat. A book club app such as Bookclubs, Bookship or Fable can help you participate or create in-person or virtual book clubs.

2. Write cards and letters or have them sent to loved ones

“My mom was a writer,” says Suzy Love. “I get greeting cards for the whole year. We work together to choose cards for each person, and I write a post-it for each greeting with the person’s name, the date of their event, and their relationship to Mom. Every few weeks we take time when she drafts what she wants to put on the card (with lots of help), and then she writes her message on the card. (I do the envelopes.) We do this activity as a way to help her maintain sentence structure and writing. (It also helps me recognize her losses. For instance, she needs help figuring out the date, but she can no longer write the year without help.) It also allows us an opportunity to discuss family members and friends, to remember stories, and put together how the relationships work. It also gives her a way to stay in touch with those family and friends.”

Love doesn’t stop there. “We did a '90 cards for 90th birthday' event last year,”​she relates. “Some people sent as many as three greetings! I then marked the back of each card with the sender’s full name, city, and relationship to Mom. We set them up in a basket next to her chair so that she can also look through them.”

Other options include sending thank-you notes to military service members via Support Our Troops, sending cards to residents of a nearby nursing facility, or sending thank-you notes to teachers at schools.  

3. Learn and document their life stories

Addie Cursio found discussing her mother’s life history made a big difference. “My daughter gave me a little book called About Mom that has questions about my mother’s life,” she says. “During our morning coffee, I ask her simple questions about her life. It has been a game-changer. Before this, she hardly spoke except about the weather, being cold, etc. We also go through old photo albums. I ask gently who folks are and then identify them and we talk about what the picture is about.”

One way to document your loved one’s life history is to record stories using an app, like StoryCorps, which archives all the stories for the Library of Congress and offers do-it-yourself guidance to make your own recordings. The Legacy Project offers an exhaustive list of life interview questions to prompt answers.

“I gave my elderly mom and dad projects to do,” says Lindalee Singer Provost. “One was called a written legacy that had a list of questions for them to answer, like ‘What I learned from my mistakes’ or ‘What I learned from working.’ Another project was to record stories from different stages of their lives.”

You may be surprised at the wisdom and experience your loved ones have to share, and it can make them feel good to have something to contribute. Beth Warriner visits her dad and draws on his knowledge of plants. “I might bring leaves or flowers for him to identify for me,” she says. “I also got him a tomato plant to take care of on the nursing home patio.”

4. Play a game

From card games to jigsaw puzzles to board games, many caregivers use gaming as a way to engage their loved ones. Lisa Pugh makes it a time for her mother to socialize as well. “We invite a few cousins over for lunch once a month and play a game of dominoes,” she says.

Board and card games are interactive, stimulate the brain, involve motor skills, and hopefully will generate some laughs. Janet Cohen says her dad has Parkinson’s, so she plays games to boost his cognitive skills. “We try to play Memory (with different card sets) with him often. Our newest game that he loves is Kings Corner,” she says. “He also enjoys Rack-O. His paid caregivers play these games as well.”

If your loved ones struggle with complicated games, just make up your own rules — it's all about having fun and having a successful experience. “We play bingo, which is really simple,” says Cursio. “Cards are adapted as she doesn’t recall any games, so we cheat. Scrabble is a good one, and I help with the words.”

My mom, who’d had a stroke, loved to play Uno, a card game, but for Dad, who had Alzheimer’s, we loosened up the rules and just focused on matching colors or numbers. In addition to cognitive stimulation for both of them, Mom exercised her fine motor skills by picking up cards (I also got a wooden card holder for her) and stretching her arms to reach out and lay her cards down.

Gary Humphrey plays darts, pool and Wii bowling with his wife. “She always wins,” he adds with a grin.

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Charlotte Haralson says a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle is perfect for her mom. You can often buy barely used or new puzzles at thrift stores. The image on the puzzle can be very motivating, so pick something your loved ones are interested in and make sure puzzle pieces are an appropriate size for their fine motor and cognitive skills. There are also puzzles developed specifically for people with dementia.

5. Make entertainment interactive

Instead of mindless hours in front of the TV, make a “must-watch” movie list of favorite movies and watch them together. Rewatch a beloved TV series or watch a new TV series together and discuss it. Mom loved watching Downton Abbey with me and we anticipated watching it all week. If your loved ones struggle to follow a plot, try old movie musicals like The Sound of Music or Meet Me in St. Louis. Dad loved them as well as music-focused TV programs like The Lawrence Welk Show (many PBS stations still air the show reruns, and you can also find them on YouTube). We all sang along! We also had fun listening to the old radio shows of Dad’s youth, which I found on NPR and YouTube, and hearing his stories about his family sitting around the radio together.

Jennifer Vincenzo McLucas says her mother loves “her” Atlanta Braves, “So we make sure she knows when the games are.” Can’t make it to sports games in person? Make watching at home a special occasion complete with the appropriate food, decorations and team paraphernalia. (I always say take any excuse for a party!)

6. Take an online adventure or learn something new

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. Dream about (and plan) your next adventure — whether to a coffee shop, library or park nearby or to a more distant destination. Being a lifelong learner is good for caregiver and care recipient alike, so watch virtual educational videos and classes online together. AARP’s Virtual Community Center offers a wide variety of classes from armchair travel to cooking to meditation and exercise.  

7. Enjoy music

Music is a fantastic tool for caregivers. “For my mom, it is classic country music. I have learned an appreciation for it,” says Sharon Robinson. “She comes to life and sings along, which is a beautiful thing!” Music can match or change our moods and stimulate memories too. Sheila McIlhaney Potts says her momma loves music. “I have a ton of old hymns and country music for her! She loves singing those songs and tells me stories of how my parents would dance every Saturday night.”

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 offer online concerts via Facebook Live or on 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!” Using headphones can often help loved ones enjoy listening better.

Cathy Pearce said her 104-year-old mom recently enjoyed a live rock concert at the Hard Rock Hotel. “It was an outdoor beach venue at the hotel,” Cathy says. “It really made her feel lively and happy for her birthday celebration.”

8. Get outside

Jennifer Vincenzo McLucas says keeping her mother active is a real challenge because she doesn’t want to do things, even if she’s capable. One of the few things that does motivate her is being outside. “We get her out of the house with her oxygen tank for an adventure once a week,” says McLucas. “Often a picnic somewhere; she likes to be in nature.”

Consider starting a garden in a raised bed or pot, enjoy a sunset together, walk around the block (health permitting), or just sit on the porch and watch the life going on around you. My grandfather used to spend hours watching the squirrels outside his window.

9. Launch a project

Working together on organization, crafts, redecorating, downsizing and other projects can provide a sense of accomplishment (even if they take longer than normal) as well as offer the benefits of using mental and physical skills. Marilyn Johnson says counting money can be helpful. “I used to keep a bag of coins for my mom to sort for me. I used the same coins over and over.” And Kristin Larsen says she and her husband clean out a drawer together, “sorting the screws, nails, and whatsits!”

You can also get creative with coloring, painting, scrapbooking, sewing, knitting, crocheting, or sanding and painting a packaged wood decor project from a craft store.

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Organize and enjoy family photos, documenting who is in each photo and the year it was taken. Create a family tree together, along with photos and stories. Create a cookbook of all their favorite recipes — and gather recipes from every branch of your family to include. Then enjoy making the recipes together, even if your loved ones just watch and taste.

One of my favorite projects is to do several things that stimulate the senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste) around a theme. For example, in the fall at apple harvest time, my parents helped me buy apples and prepare and bake an apple pie. We sang songs about apples, like “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree”, “God Didn’t Make Little Green Apples” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” ate the pie, and watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

spinner image robert goyer holding a plate of apples while making pie
Amy Goyer made pie with her father, Robert.
Courtesy Amy Goyer

10. Take advantage of technology

Technology is a tool that Terry Thomas Younker uses to engage her father-in-law. “We have Alexa stream the lyrics to songs and my father-in-law sings along. It keeps him entertained and his brain active reading the lyrics.”

In addition to music, technology can facilitate video chatting on a smartphone, tablet, computer, smart speaker with a built-in video screen (often the easiest since they don’t have to pick up a phone), or even a two-way camera with voice capabilities. Schedule visits with family or friends of all ages, and if needed, come equipped with a list of conversation starters like those provided in AARP’s Care to Talk cards.

“Buying my mom a GrandPad was a life changer!” says Michelle Warech-Philipson. “Since we live halfway across the country from each other, we now video chat almost daily. That alone has made a world of difference for us.”

Heather takes technology a step further by getting remote access to her mom’s computer or cellphone and working together on projects. “I am a long-distance caregiver,” she says. “Mom is in Southern California, and I am in Alaska. Once a week, we Skype. I often will remote into her computer at the same time, and we will work on a digital project together. We have been working on putting all her computer photos in Google Photos. From there, we go through them one by one, and she will give them a description and we will talk about the photo. The ultimate goal is to share these photos with her family and close friends.”

11. Get physically active

I hear from caregivers nearly every day saying that they struggle to get their loved ones to move more. Physical activity is good for the brain as well as other parts of the body — even two minutes of physical activity can help you live longer, so make it fun. Combine socializing with exercising to motivate loved ones; don’t just tell them what to do — exercise with them. Get friends or family to join you too (in person or by video chat).  

You can watch simple exercise videos online for standing or seated exercises and yoga. Listen to music as you walk or exercise; the body responds to the rhythms. I used to motivate Dad to march around the house by playing military march music on my smart speaker — it was so innate for him to respond by standing at attention and marching in an even gait rather than shuffling his feet (a common problem for those with dementia). Of course, he sang along too!

12. Get back to basics

Ask your loved ones to help with organizing and household chores. Sweeping, dusting, gardening and folding laundry are familiar household tasks. When Dad was restless, I would gather all the washcloths in the house and ask him to fold them. If he still had excess energy, I’d take them out of the room, mess them up, and bring them back as “new” laundry to fold again. Doing household chores can have many benefits, including self-esteem. Cursio says her mother likes to fold clothes: “It makes her feel independent and we talk while she does that.”

Potts says her 92-year-old mom has sewn clothes since she was a young girl. “She loves to sew for children. We do Operation Christmas Child at our church. Her goal this year was to sew 100 felt teddy bears to put in the boxes in November. She has met that goal and she now has a goal of making 100 pillowcase dresses for them,” says Sheila. “I sometimes have to thread the sewing machine for her, but that’s OK!”

Dani Jennings says she engages her mother in preparing meals. “She helps cook dinner every night by chopping veggies and reading out the next step of the recipe,” Dani says. Going out to eat is also a popular activity. Potts takes her mother out to eat at least twice a month: “We take one of her friends with us and she loves it!”

Joanne Krause says her husband loves to plan their grocery shopping outing. “From gathering coupons to reviewing the flyers and making a list,” she says. “Once in the store, he strategically gathers his groceries while saving steps. He wears his Vietnam baseball cap, which brings him attention from other men, also veterans from the time. Helps to engage in conversation.”

Intergenerational relationships are one of the basic joys in life. Theresa Mobbs says it is very difficult for her family to engage her husband since he is unable to move, participate or talk. “All I can do is invite family over for meals in order to get around him (his mind is still mostly fine). This is tough for me because his care needs don’t cease that day, but it’s essential for both our well-being,” she says. “It was impressed on me how important this is recently when we wandered out from another room to find my husband with his 3-year-old granddaughter next to him, holding his hand, both quietly watching an animal movie on TV.”

No one of another generation to interact with? Ask a school or community center if they have intergenerational programs in your area — you might even find a virtual intergenerational program.

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