Bored? Lonely? Helpless? How to Keep Your Aging Parents Happy

Our Care Managers understand physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs.

Boredom, loneliness, and helplessness are all too common among seniors. Here are simple ways to keep the elderly active, engaged and happy.

Does your elderly mom complain that she doesn’t have enough to do each day? What about your dad: has he been spending more and more time alone, reminiscing about his old friends, rather than making new ones? Or have you noticed that your parents get easily frustrated with tasks they can no longer accomplish on their own?

Everyone feels bored, lonely or helpless now and then. For older and dependent adults, though, these feelings can be so pervasive and intense that they severely diminish their quality of life.

If your aging parents are showing these signs, it may be time to intervene.

Dubbed “the three plagues” by William Thomas, MD, founder of the Eden Alternative, the combination of boredom, loneliness, and helplessness among seniors can negatively impact overall health and well-being. To help combat this, Dr. Thomas created a model to transform the way we care for the elderly. Individuals who received care through this model felt more engaged and empowered, enhancing their well-being and quality of life.

There’s great wisdom in this model, and much we can learn. It offers valuable tools for intervening when you detect signs that boredom, loneliness, and helplessness are plaguing your elderly parents.

Here are a few helpful strategies that can easily integrate into your relationship with aging parents and loved ones:

How to Keep the Elderly Active and Busy

Boredom creeps up on us when we’re not engaged in meaningful activities and is all the more poignant when monotony sets in—as is so often the case for older adults. Monday is not all that different from Thursday or Saturday or Tuesday. Life loses some of its sparkles. Nothing is especially compelling or motivating, and the hours of the day can seem to stretch on endlessly.

The key to keeping your elderly parents entertained is figuring out how they can mark time in meaningful ways, with social activities that are not just purposeful and engaging, but also a little bit out of the ordinary. In other words, your ideas need to help them shake up their routine and have some fun with the mundane tasks of the week.

One enjoyable way to accomplish this is to link an everyday activity to a job, hobby or interest from their past.

Take John, for example. Limited by his wheelchair, he could no longer participate in many of the activities he once enjoyed. But in his younger days, John had a knack for art. While caring for him, I turned our regular outings into a quest for material to use in a three-dimensional composition. As I pushed his wheelchair throughout the neighborhood, John directed me to collect specific items—from leaves and twigs to pinecones and flower petals. I kept all these items in a bag and before long, we had amassed enough material for a robust and colorful collage.

Mealtimes can bring similar opportunities to keep the elderly active and busy. My friend Marie shared weekly dinners with her Dad, but over time, their routine got stale. Marie decided to shake things up by tying each dinner to a theme and a movie. One week, Marie and her Dad ate take-out Chinese food while watching Chinatown. Another time, they shared burgers, fries, and milkshakes while watching American Graffiti. And then there was pasta—and some Chianti—while they watched The Godfather. Marie transformed their everyday dinners into fun and entertaining occasions that both she and her father looked forward to each week.

Daphne took a different approach but accomplished the same goal. Daphne’s mom was a diehard pizza lover, but after she moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, she couldn’t get out much due to her physical condition. Daphne got creative and put the names of all the local pizza restaurants into a hat. Once a week, when the two of them got together for dinner, Daphne’s mom pulled a name from the cap, and that was where they called for pizza. Daphne and her mom even kept a journal, writing a two- or three-sentence review of every pizza they tried. Neither one of them wanted to miss this weekly dinner—Thursdays had to be pizza night!

How to Overcome Loneliness Among the Elderly

Loneliness stems from the lack of social interaction with others. Thus, it’s no surprise that the cure involves finding ways to re-engage with people and connect with them in meaningful ways.

You can help your elderly parents feel less lonely by identifying opportunities for social interactions, either one-on-one or in group settings. Remember, in this digital age; strong connections can happen even without face-to-face interaction. Today’s technology can bring people together voice-to-voice on the phone, virtually through video conferencing or in writing via social media and email.

Some people assume seniors will not want to, or can’t, use technology. But the truth is, many elderly adults will embrace a new way to communicate—especially if it brings them closer to their families. They may also find it exciting to learn a new skill.

Here at LivHOME, we have had great success with senior-friendly tablet technology that helps our clients connect with others using video calls. Initially, one of our clients, Jeanne, was unsure about using the tablet in her home; however, her reluctance evaporated when she learned that she could use the tablet to make video calls to a grandchild whom she hadn’t seen in a very long time. Now Jeanne uses our video call platform to connect with her granddaughter once a week; the regular, meaningful interaction has brought a delightful spark back into her days.

Remember: social connections can come in many forms. The choice will depend on each’s preferences and tastes. For some elderly adults, the salve for loneliness may be a trip to the park to watch children at play. Others may need something more interactive, like regular visits to a senior center or the local coffee shop where other like-minded people can surround them and talk, laugh and share stories.

How to Keep Older Adults from Feeling Helpless

Helplessness, which encroaches as the elderly lose physical and mental abilities along with the autonomy they once possessed, can be the most devastating of all.

If your elderly parent acts helpless, chances are they will also feel out of control, depressed and disengaged. The best remedy for this is to engage them through reciprocation.

What does reciprocation mean?

As your role with your aging parent changes, you may be tempted to take the lead in every situation. But doing so will only make your parents feel disempowered—and all the more helpless. The key to preventing this is to avoid always being the leader intentionally. Instead, look for ways your mom or dad can give back and participate as a partner in activities.

Even the language commonly used in elder care can engender feelings of helplessness. Words like “caregiver” and “care recipient” set up a power differential between those who give care and those who receive it. In my 30-plus years of working with families and their aging parents, I’ve learned that it is far more productive to use more neutral language, such as “care partner,” which evens out the playing field and helps the elderly feel more engaged and less helpless.

When your parents begin to feel like they can play an active role in the aging process and can continue to give as well as to receive, their sense of well-being is bound to improve. The challenge for you will be to let your parents enjoy some activities on their own, even if it would be easier and quicker if you took charge. Make it a point to engage them in tasks—and the decision-making about tasks—and they’ll feel less helpless and more in control.

You Are Not Alone With LivHOME

If this still feels overwhelming, remember: You’re not expected to have all the answers or go this alone. Supporting and caring for the individuals in our aging population – now the largest generation in America – takes a team. Instead, you can reach out to other family members for help or consult a third-party professional such as an Aging Life Care Professional™ or a geriatric care manager. Together, you’ll be able to help your elderly parents overcome the three plagues, develop a more positive outlook and regain their sense of well-being.

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Steven Barlam

Author Steven Barlam

Steven Barlam, MSW, LCSW, CMC is the Chief Professional Officer and Co-Founder of LivHOME. Since 1985, Steve has worked exclusively in the field of geriatrics, working directly with clients and their families, and developing innovative service delivery models. He has served as President of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. Steve is a regular lecturer at local universities and national conferences on topics relating to care management, technology, and patient/client care.

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