(Editor’s note: This is the 12th in the Next Avenue “When Should You…” series on aging milestones for parents or loved ones. With our partners at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, we address common caregiving concerns.)
Whether you are “just checking in” with Mom or Dad a couple of times a week, or are caring for a loved one in your home, the goal — for both of you — is to ensure they are living healthfully, independently and as emotionally content as possible.
It’s a goal that requires you being able to recognize the attitude and behavior changes that indicate they may need help staying engaged. This can help maintain their emotional well-being as they become less physically and/or cognitively able.
The most telling changes: they have experienced a recent loss, especially of a loved one; they seem physically or emotionally withdrawn; they aren’t returning calls; they appear dazed, confused and/or forgetful; they aren’t taking care of things (themselves, the house, a pet) they once took pride in; they have lost interest in activities they once looked forward to, such as visits from the grandkids, gardening, Saturday brunch with friends, going to church.
“You don’t get information about what’s going on just by asking them, you get it by using your eyes and listening for what’s not being said,” stresses Gwendolyn Byrd, coordinator of the Senior Companion Program, which provides companionship and assistance to older adults, at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.
Consider an Assessment
It’s also a goal that requires you to be as up-to-date as possible on their medical, cognitive and emotional status. “To get that kind of information, you may need to suggest they get a geriatric assessment,” says Byrd. “It will look at how well they are functioning and their mental and cognitive well-being, as well as their physical health issues.”
To find activities that they will buy into, ask them directly what they miss, what they want to be doing, where they want to be going.
Once you — and they — have identified what’s causing a loved one’s distress and withdrawal, it’s up to you to come up with a variety of engaging and stimulating activities that will lift spirits and help maintain emotional well-being.
‘Make Things Happen’
To find activities that they will buy into, ask them directly what they miss, what they want to be doing, where they want to be going. “Then,” says Byrd, “find ways to make those things happen.”
Best bets are activities they enjoyed in the past, that tap into skills and abilities, and that get them out of the house, such as volunteering, attending programs at the local senior center, or participating in adult day programs. “Those kinds of activities are win-win-wins. They get them active and they get them engaged and they get them socializing, too,” says Byrd.
Volunteering has been linked to health benefits, especially for older adults, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Besides helping seniors remain physically and socially active, volunteering can provide a sense a purpose.
Check Local Programs
Local senior centers offer a variety of social, recreational and educational activities in which your loved one can participate with their peers. Many centers also provide hot lunches for a minimal fee. Some provide transportation if your loved one needs assistance getting to the center.
If she or he has cognitive impairment issues or more severe physical limitations, an adult day program may be the appropriate option for staying socially engaged. Most adult day centers provide social activities like holiday parties and therapeutic activities such as art or music therapy.
If you’re looking for ways to keep your loved one engaged at home, good bets include doing movement exercises to music from the past, working jigsaw puzzles and hobby- or craft-related activities. “They’re fun, you often have a finished product when you are done, and they can jog memories, too, so they are chances for reminiscing,” says Byrd.
It’s OK to Delegate
Far too many caregivers think it’s solely up to them to keep a loved one engaged, stimulated and socialized.
Besides being untrue, says Byrd, it’s often not possible because of the other responsibilities sandwich generation caregivers are juggling.
“It’s OK,” says Byrd, “to hire caregivers to come into the home or work out schedules with others — siblings, relatives, friends — to do some of the things you know need doing, but don’t have the time or energy or even willingness to do.”
“And,” she adds, “you shouldn’t feel guilty about doing so.”
This article is reprinted with permission. © 2014 Benjamin Rose Institute in Aging. All Rights Reserved.