Encouraging Your Aging Parent Towards Activity

Picture this: Dad is in front of the TV, as usual. He used to golf twice a week with his friends. Is there a problem here? This is a common and natural concern, and bridging the gap between what you hope an older adult does with their time and how they prefer to spend it can cause worry and friction. However, there are strategies to bridge this divide. Engaging an older loved one in conversation about their interests and values can lead to a more meaningful connection and an opportunity to learn more about each other. 

There is really no perfect formula for how much time an older adult should be active and engaged versus being more passive or solo. After all, preferences and limitations vary for individuals of all ages. Still, research supports that social engagement is vital for overall well being as it promotes cognitive stimulation and aids mental health (AARP). And of course, socializing can help prevent loneliness, a topic of growing interest due to its many negative impacts on quality of life. Likewise, physical activity is crucial for healthy aging as it promotes strength, balance, heart health, and prevention of chronic disease and falls. Harvard notes that “decades of solid science confirm that exercise improves health and can extend your life.” (Harvard Health).  With this in mind, the instinct to encourage an older adult to do more with their days makes perfect sense. Still, this conversation should be handled with care and the following tips will pave the way for a fruitful talk. 

Lead with Empathy

It is important to understand that your parent or loved one may have adopted a less active lifestyle for a variety of reasons. Research from Baylor University notes that physical ability can impact one’s social life;  “When an individual becomes less mobile, he or she may start to avoid activities and social events, leading to the feeling of isolation”. Indeed, many seniors are adapting to living with chronic pain, stiff joints and a need for more sleep and rest.  Additionally, while rewatching old movies or fiddling with the same gadgets may seem lackluster to you, these routines may be an enormous source of comfort to someone experiencing a season of loss and change. Be sure to consider how the individual’s unique history and circumstances influence their attitudes on adding more to their schedule.

Start Small

Knowing how many benefits there are to be found in increased activity, it might be easy to throw a lot of options out right away. Book clubs, senior centers, and walking groups are all ideas (potentially) worth exploring, but it may be too much, too soon. Focus on exploring interests and offer to help realize one new activity at a time. Be mindful that while you may love to see a packed schedule, your loved one may be satisfied with adding just a few elements of connection and engagement to their lives, or none at all. Also, be prepared to have this conversation over many weeks or months at a pace that feels sustainable. Be clear that your interest is in supporting a happy and well-rounded lifestyle and keep open to how your loved one defines those things, as well.

Exploring Interests Exercise:

Five Questions

The following questions are designed to generate meaningful conversation around activities, preferences and values. Take turns answering so that it becomes a free-flowing conversation. Look out for opportunities to find common ground and shared interests that you can do together.

  1. What would a great day be for you? 
  • What are 3-5 things that a fun day would include? 
  • Consider simple pleasures and gratifying experiences of connection: is it time with the grandkids, being in nature, laughing with a friend?
  1.  How do you feel about your current level of activity? 
  • Rate your satisfaction on a scale of 1-10.  What could be done to get you closer to 10? What is something you would love to try?
  • Dare to dream big!  If your great aunt used to love a beach day but has not been since she started using a wheelchair, know that this desire may not be out of reach. Adaptive tools, like a terrain-friendly wheelchair, can help individuals of varying abilities connect with the world again. 
  1. Who do you like to spend time with these days? Is there anyone you wish you could see more often?
  • What relationships feel most valuable and how can you make time to nurture these? What kinds of settings do you like to socialize in? 
  • You can consider options like setting up a regular coffee date or teaching dad to use Facetime to connect with his brother who lives out of state. Though new technology can feel daunting to adopt, with a bit of patience it can provide a great source of connection. 
  1. What are things you loved to do in the past?
  • Reflecting on your past, what are some activities and interests you used to love? Are there any past hobbies you would like to try again?
  • Reminiscing can help us remember parts of ourselves that have been long dormant. It can also be a way to engage with someone who is experiencing cognitive changes or dementia. Bringing out old pictures, videos or music can be a great way to prompt beloved memories and can stimulate conversation about dusting off the gardening tools, for example. 
  1. How do you like to move? 
  • What kinds of physical activities do you enjoy  or used to enjoy?

Be sure to consider changes related to mobility and health, along with individual preferences. Walking, tai-chi and swimming are all low-impact activities, and chair exercises can be adapted for a variety of abilities. Talk about ways to add more movement into everyday life that are fun and doable. If maintaining independence is a value to your loved one, you can  highlight that being physically active can support this goal. Check out this article to find seated and standing exercise options.