How to keep elderly parents active and involved

Senior man, exercise with a hula hoop in park


Whether you are helping to care for your elderly parents at home or want to be involved in their care at an assisted living facility, you are probably looking for ways to keep them strong emotionally and physically.

Numerous studies show that people – no matter what their age — who stay active and involved in life lead healthier, more satisfying lives. The benefit of mental and physical stimulation can be seen in better health and an overall better quality of life. So how you can help your parent stay active? The three main ingredients are physical exercise, mental stimulation and socialization. Here’s how:

Exercise. The benefits of physical exercise can be seen at any age, but as we get older and our bodies start to slow down, exercise is more important than ever for both preventing illness and for maintaining health.

According to the Report on Physical Activity and Health by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, inactive adults are nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease as active adults. A 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that staying physically fit helps prevent congestive heart failure, stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Most communities offer many programs designed for seniors, including everything from endurance and strength-building workouts to water aerobics and yoga. Regular low-impact exercise such as walking, bicycling or gardening for only 20 to 30 minutes a day can help keep circulation flowing and bones healthy.

In addition to encouraging your parent to take group classes, consider scheduling a regular time to exercise together. If you have always enjoyed walking together, for example, find a way to continue doing so. You may not be able to hike together like you used to, but a stroll around a nearby park or even a lap around the local mall can be beneficial and enjoyable.

A long-term study by the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt Graduate School of Public Health of more than 1,600 adults in their 70s and 80s found that just 20 minutes of brisk daily walking can keep seniors from losing mobility in older age. Researchers  for the study, which was released at the May meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, defined loss of mobility as not being able to walk about a quarter of a mile.

Mental stimulation. An increasing body of research shows that the “use it or lose it” maxim applies to our brains as well as to the rest of our bodies. Many seniors experience mental declines when they no longer participate in the challenging activities of their younger years.

Brain researchers have found that the key to staying mentally sharp is in becoming a lifelong learner. By tackling new projects and new ways of doing things all through our lives, we continue to engage different parts of the brain and to form new neural connections.  Here are a few ideas for your parent to consider:

  • taking up a new hobby or skill such as chess or bridge or knitting
  • learning a foreign language through videos or audio recordings
  • reading books and magazines
  • working crossword puzzles or other word or number games

Has your parent always wanted to learn a skill but never had the time? Maybe an art class or a self-defense class? Look for offerings in your community. Maybe you could even sign up together.

Social opportunities. In addition to the mental benefits, your parent will gain important social benefits from taking a class.  Many of us are more susceptible to depression as we age, and a great way to fight depression is though social interaction.

Encourage your parent to sign up for social opportunities through your retirement facility or local senior center, but also check out programs offered at community colleges, adult education centers and libraries, so your parent can interact with people of all ages.

In addition, help your parent look for volunteer opportunities. Depending on your parent’s skills and mobility, here are a few options to consider:

  • libraries
  • schools
  • soup kitchens
  • hospitals
  • animal shelters
  • centers/schools for kids and adults with developmental disabilities
  • museums
  • community theaters
  • hospices (Aspire Hospice, for instance, is always looking for dedicated volunteers of all ages.)

By volunteering, your parent will feel connected to the community. This feeling of value brings mental and physical benefits, and studies show that volunteering can even help people feel happier.

Researchers from the London School of Economics studied the relationship between volunteering and happiness in a large group of American adults. When compared with people who never volunteered, the study participants who volunteered every two to four weeks were 12 percent more likely to say they were very happy. Those who volunteered every week were 16 percent more likely to be very happy.

Be prepared for some initial resistance as you endeavor to get your parents involved in these various activities. Both of you will undoubtedly feel a little uncomfortable at the role reversal at first. In addition, you may hear the following concerns:  “I won’t know anyone there;”  “I can’t move as well as I used to;” “I am afraid I am going to fall;” or “I am fine the way I am.”

Discuss these concerns and how you can address them together, while explaining the benefits of keeping active. Brainstorm some more ideas together in order to find a compromise if your parent does not want to try one of your suggestions.

Keep at it. Helping your parents stay active, alert and engaged in life is one of the best gifts you can give them.

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