As caregivers we are so focused on health care, safety, finances and logistics that we can easily lose sight of quality of life — both for those we care for and for ourselves. Experiencing joy while caregiving isn’t always easy, but I believe it’s more than just a nice thing to do: It’s a crucial survival skill. Every moment of joy fills our tanks a bit so we can keep going. And a little bit of fun can go a long way to relieve stress, motivate, activate and connect — as well as relieve boredom.
I’ve learned to prioritize both noticing the inherent joys throughout the day as well as proactively creating joyful moments. Here are some ideas for infusing joy into your loved one’s life, as well as your own.
Music. When I ask caregivers how they create joy and fun, music is the most common response. Play your loved one’s favorite genre of music — from 1940s swing to gospel to rock. Listen on the radio or television (watching Lawrence Welk reruns is my dad’s favorite thing to do), or set up a playlist on an MP3 player. You can use Pandora, iHeartRadio, Amazon Prime music and Sirius XM to play songs that bring peace, ease pain, energize, distract from anxiety, induce memories (such as military or patriotic music) or trigger a spontaneous sing-along.
Adventures. I approach every outing as an adventure — whether it’s to a medical appointment, shopping, dinner, a movie, a ball game or just a car ride to get out of the house. Outings are more difficult for my dad these days (he’s 93 and has Alzheimer’s disease), but we still go out for drive-through coffee and lemonade on good days. Plan ahead for the best places for parking, and recruit someone else to drive or come along to lend a helping hand and make it more fun.
Food. The taste and scent of good food as well as the act of making it can stir happy memories for all of us. Try making your loved ones’ favorite meal (or ask them to do so). Stop for a cup of coffee or tea. Bake together or watch cooking shows on television, and talk about the food you’d like to have. Savor every bite.
Physical activity. Get moving, and make it fun. I made the effort to keep Dad swimming as long as he could, and that helped me stay fit, too. What else? There’s dancing — even chair dancing (move those arms!) — or you can try tossing a ball back and forth, marching, and yoga breathing and poses. Even a short walk to the mailbox can change a mood.
Games. Think about games your loved ones can play, like familiar card games, board games or word games (my parents always had fun with Mad Libs). Charades can be doable even for those with communication disorders. Work on crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles together, or even play “I spy….” Games can help pass time in a waiting room and distract from boredom or pain.
Celebrations and holidays. Make any excuse for a party. Celebrate all anniversaries and birthdays. Every holiday, whether it’s Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day or the first day of spring, offers the opportunity to decorate their home or room (my family has headgear and jewelry for all holidays — just for fun). Also celebrate accomplishments from small things like a successful shower or fastening their own buttons to large things like getting out of the hospital. Celebrations can be marked by a “Congratulations!” sign, a full-blown party or a big hug and a happy dance.
Humor. Just be silly. Laugh at yourself, tell jokes, retell old family stories, watch funny movies or videos on YouTube, read funny stories. Have a wheelchair race or put your glasses on upside down. Laugh about the everyday mistakes and foibles we all experience (like when I forgot to give Dad his false teeth and didn’t realize it until we were out at a ball game. He just smiled, made a funny face and laughed it off).
Nature. For many people, simple nature brings the most joy. Bring fresh flowers, or visit a garden or nursery. You can also plant flowers, walk outside, build a snowman, cuddle up with a pet, watch an animal play or go for a car ride to see the spring blooms, the snow or the fall leaves.
Home videos and scrapbooks. Put the old home movies on DVD or digitize them, and watch them together. If your loved ones don’t have scrapbooks, make some together — just sorting through old photos can be fun. Use your camera phone, too — take snapshots and selfies and share them, or look at family and friends’ photos on social media sites.
Intergenerational exchanges. Bring children and elders together for a visit. Holding or even just seeing a baby can bring great joy. Ask a grandchild to read a book aloud or recite a poem he or she memorized. Grandkids can also teach elders how to use a computer or smartphone. Ask a grandparent to share a hobby or teach the younger generation how to bake a pie, clean properly or build something.
Massage and other bodywork. A simple hand, foot or neck massage brings joy. Try it with scented lotion, such as lavender to soothe, or lemon or grapefruit to energize. A masseuse comes to our house once a week for Dad, and that massage is the happiest time for him.
Notice the inherent joy in every day. Make an effort to be mindful of the joy that you might be missing when your mind is racing and your tension rages. The memory of Mom’s smile as I tucked her in bed every night will forever bring me joy. The small victories like Dad brushing his teeth by himself. The “Thank you, sweets” from Dad when I adjust his pillow. Dad tapping his toes under the blanket as he listens to music. Don’t miss a precious subtle moment.
Being creative and open to the humorous, joyful moments will help you face the tougher aspects of caregiving. You might consider keeping a “joy journal” and noting the joyful moments. They will bring you comfort in the future.
Amy Goyer is AARP's Family and Caregiving Expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. A recognized media authority, she has appeared on Today, The Doctors and Dr. Phil, and had interviews in The Wall Street Journal and People. Connect with Amy on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn, amygoyer.com and in our Online Community.