5 Ways to Get a Senior to Smile


Despite increasing awareness of and sensitivity to ageism in our society, age-related stereotypes about stubborn, grumpy seniors persist. Chronic health conditions, changes in functioning and the loss of loved ones pose physical and emotional challenges that can bring even the most cheerful elders down from time to time, but depression and irritability are not normal parts of aging. In fact, research shows that perceptions of life and overall happiness actually tend to improve with age.

The rollercoaster of life is full of ups and downs at all ages. During these fleeting low points, it is natural for family members and caregivers to want to lift an elder’s spirits in an attempt to help them feel better and improve relationship dynamics. Sometimes you’ll succeed and sometimes you’ll fail, but it never hurts to try.

Before offering some suggestions, I encourage you to be sensitive to signs of anxiety, physical pain and fear. There are many potential sources of a senior’s bad mood, and addressing these underlying causes will ensure your efforts are more successful. Just keep in mind that you want to help a senior truly perk up, not pressure them to feign happiness for your sake.

How to Cheer Up Elderly Loved Ones

  1. Listen and Learn

    There is no denying that we live in an ageist society. Instead of valuing the hard-won wisdom of our elders, we tend to focus on their weaknesses. Older adults can’t escape these stereotypes because they permeate everything from television ads to strangers’ glances on the street. These negative attitudes toward aging make it easy for older adults to feel they are invisible or have become a burden.
    Often, the most important thing we can do to cheer people up is simply listen to them. Asking pertinent questions helps, too. If you can say, “Tell me what Uncle Jimmy was like when you two were small,” you could encourage a wonderful story. You may eventually find that you enjoy tales of past decades and what life was like before, during and after major historical events.
    You can even ask to record these conversations and preserve family memories for generations to come. Let your elders know their life has had—and still has—meaning.
  2. Go Through Photos and Mementos Together

    My uncle always enjoyed playing little jokes on people, especially kids. I had kept a few of the gag gifts he and my aunt had given to my sons when they were growing up and decided to use them to help lift his spirits after he moved into a nursing home. I brought a few trinkets and childhood pictures of my boys whenever I visited with him. Just seeing these memorable toys and pictures of his grinning grand-nephews made him smile and brightened up his day.
    Photo albums alone can bring smiles to many elders—even those with cognitive impairments. Because of the way memory loss occurs, seniors tend to retain and recall memories and information from long ago much better than recent people, places and events. A good rule is that the more severe a loved one’s memory issues are, the older the pictures should be.
    Photographs from an elder’s young adult years, or even their childhood if some are available, can foster a sense of belonging and even joy. If the pictures you have are more recent than their retained memories, then you’ll need to take the lead. Don’t worry if your elder doesn’t remember; use your own memories of the people and events depicted to tell family stories.
  3. Ask Them to Dance

    This suggestion comes from one of the best caregivers my dad had at the nursing home where he lived. Dad loved music, especially big band music, so I kept him well supplied with CDs. Sandy, his main caregiver, would bounce into Dad’s room on occasion, turn up the volume on his CD player and tell him she wanted to dance. She’d lift Dad up from his chair, hold him as if they were going to Waltz, and then they would sway back and forth to the music. After a few smart-aleck comments to Dad about his “dancing,” Sandy would have him laughing and enjoying himself.
    This combination of light physical touch, upbeat music and a smiling caregiver can work wonders. I’m not suggesting that this approach is possible in all cases, but the idea could serve as inspiration for your own version of letting loose and having fun with your loved one. Uplifting music from an era the elder enjoys along with good companionship can often bring a grumpy or withdrawn loved one out of their shell.
  4. Play Games, Complete Puzzles and Do Other Activities Together

    Chronic boredom is a common problem for seniors. A team of Canadian researchers who set out to better understand the mental processes that occur during an instance of boredom defined this state as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”
    Older adults may struggle to cope with changes in their physical and mental abilities caused by age and illness. These changes can make it difficult or impossible for elders to fully participate in life and the activities they once enjoyed. Additional studies have shown that prolonged disengagement with one’s environment can affect behavior and may even be a risk factor for depression and dying younger.
    Family members, caregivers and friends can help their loved ones break out of this rut by finding activities for seniors that capitalize on their interests and remaining abilities. Board games, card games, puzzles, crafts, cooking, gardening, and countless other hobbies can be tailored to fit all ability levels. Elders with limited mobility, low vision, dementia, hearing loss, and many other age-related conditions can remain active and engaged by adapting the activities themselves and/or using assistive equipment to participate.
    However, be careful not to demean your loved one by proposing something too simple or juvenile. My mother loved crossword puzzles and could whip through the books of New York Times crosswords that I brought to her. As her memory started to fail, she began to have trouble with the hardest ones. One day, a well-meaning friend brought her one of the large, EASY CROSSWORDS books that you can buy in any grocery or drug store. Mom was furious and I could hardly blame her. She was still capable of getting part way through our local newspaper’s crossword puzzles and felt this gift was more appropriate for a child.
    Senior activities are often about trial and error. If you make them too easy, then participants are insulted. If they’re too hard, then they may wind up feeling frustrated and self-conscious. Focus on striking a balance and finding something to do together that is meaningful and engaging yet easily managed.
  5. Let Them Be Themselves

    One last note: If your aging loved one has always been the type of person who loves to complain, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change that tendency now. Some people are happiest if they can talk about how impossible everybody and everything is. There’s no harm in trying to help a senior cheer up or reengage their mind and body, but they may fight you on it. In that case, your only option is to change your own attitude and how you choose to react to their negativity. (These 8 ways to improve your mood may help.)
    Let them complain. Then, detach from their complaints and don’t take their attitude personally. Cheerfully agree that “people are terribly inconsiderate.” Don’t accept blame. Don’t argue. Let the grumbles and objections float by, unless, of course there is a reason to be concerned. Just be sure to keep an eye out for more serious indicators of an underlying physical or mental health issue that could be impacting their moods and/or behavior. In this way, you can both live your lives as contentedly as possible.

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Sources: Never a Dull Moment (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/07-08/dull-moment)

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