For most of my parents' marriage, Mom was the social butterfly, while Dad was more quiet and self-contained. He was fine in social situations, but attended group events mainly to please Mom. Then, overnight, our family's world turned up-side-down. Dad needed surgery to correct effects from a World War II brain injury. The surgery backfired, sending him into the world of dementia. He needed to be moved into a nearby nursing home. Three years later, Mom's own health problems led to her moving into the same facility.

When it came to adjusting to nursing home life, their individual adjustments to socialization were the exact opposite of what we'd expected. Dad, with his dementia-challenged mind, loved taking part in social activities when he felt well enough. Mom, however, declined all attempts to socialize. She watched TV, did crossword puzzles and read magazines, but she wouldn't join in group activities.

Once, when I asked Mom why she stayed in her room except when she walked down the hall to visit Dad, she said she didn't want to socialize with all those "old people." Mom was never a social snob. All I could think of was that she was in denial. In her mind, if she didn't socialize with the others, then she wouldn't have to admit to herself that she was one of "them." As time went on, I did make some progress with Mom, mainly by helping her feel useful.

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If you have parents who are not taking part in activities offered by an assisted living facility or a nursing home where they live, here are some tips that may help them adjust and socialize more:

  • First recognize that it takes time for most people to break into already existing groups, so be patient with your elder and don't push too hard. In addition to being "the new kid on the block," moving into a facility designed for people who need assistance means admitting to themselves that they are facing health issues and are more dependent on others. This can be a very difficult adjustment, so encourage socialization, but do so gently.
  • While you wait for them to adjust you can observe what is happening in the facility. Is there a group of "grumpy old men" who like to sit around and complain about the world – perhaps just like your dad? Hmmm, maybe this could be a fit. Is there a group of women who like Wii bowling? Maybe your mom would eventually like to join a team.
  • Conversely, is there a workshop where your dad could build something with minimal interference from others? Is there a knitting group where your mom could quietly sit and listen until she gets comfortable enough to join in the chatter? Consider their personalities so you don't bombard them with options. You can offer one suggestion at a time.
  • If the facility doesn't have a magazine and/or newspaper swap set up, see if you can start one. My mom loved her magazines but old issues would pile up in her room. I asked around to find other women who liked to read magazines and started an informal swap group. That led to some friendly interaction without Mom actually admitting that she was socializing.
  • If music is a hobby, or was a vocation for your parent, see if he or she would like to play the piano or another instrument for the group. My mother-in-law played the piano for the first time in years because of staff encouragement in the nursing home where she lived, and she loved it.
  • Does your mom or dad like to bake? Many facilities have staff members who will help residents bake or cook. This shared kitchen experience can lead to some fun times where people forget themselves enough to join in.
  • If your elder gives you the "I'm not one of those old folks" excuse, maybe you could suggest that your parent volunteer to help take care of those who have more severe problems. Nearly everyone likes to feel useful, so if your dad can walk fairly well, he may be able to push someone's wheelchair to the lunchroom. He would then feel as though he's performing a service, yet he'd still be socializing.

Most senior housing facilities have an activities director who really would like to know more about your elders' interests. So talk with the activities director. Let this person know that your mom has been interested in yoga. Maybe they can start a wheelchair yoga class. If your dad loves jigsaw puzzles, maybe the activities director can set aside a table where several people could work on a puzzle without it being disturbed. Use your own imagination to help the staff do their jobs better. You may spur the activities department to start any number of interesting activities that hadn't been used before.

Your parents may not ever turn into the life of the party, but with time they hopefully will begin to socialize in their own way. You may even be surprised. My quiet dad loved to drum along with the music on Fridays, something none of the family would ever have envisioned.