As family caregivers, we strive to meet all our loved ones’ needs. We give medication reminders, cook meals, manage doctor’s appointments and keep schedules. Our daily tasks can be challenging, but one in particular gives families a lot of grief: ensuring our loved ones are stimulated and entertained.

If a senior’s abilities have waned, it can be challenging to find ways to adapt or replace the pastimes they once loved. Sometimes, though, our loved ones simply lose their motivation to participate in life. They may complain, nag us, or spend all day sleeping or watching television. What is a caregiver to do? It all depends on a senior’s personality and their living situation.

Helping Seniors Find a New Sense of Purpose

I recently spoke with a caregiver named Ann who was struggling with how to adapt to life as a caregiver. For the last several decades, Ann has had no problem loading her dishwasher, washing her clothes or making her bed. That is, until her widowed father moved in with her and her family. Now, her father follows her and her husband Jim around the house, telling them how things should be done. Ann just doesn’t know how to handle it graciously. Sound familiar?

At first, the arrangement seemed perfect for everyone. After Ann’s mother died, her dad knew he should sell his house, but he didn’t want to move into an apartment in a senior living community. He felt he still had too much energy. Ann and Jim, even with their two teenagers, had plenty of room and thought Ann’s father could help out at home.

Unfortunately, that is the problem: He helps too much. Ann’s dad used to own his own business and managed many employees. He had been very successful, but after he retired, Ann’s mom used to complain that he wanted to run the house. At the time, Ann didn’t think much of it, but now all the “advice” and criticism is getting old. Ann tries to be patient but honestly doesn’t know what to do with her dad.

What he needs is direction. He has retired from a successful career and his wife is gone. He is still healthy but isn’t fulfilled by golf games and walks outside. He wants to make a difference. As he struggles to find meaning and value in this new stage of life, he’s driving his family nuts.

The first thing I suggested to Ann was to urge her dad to contact the hospice organization that cared for her mother and inquire about volunteering for them. Most hospice volunteers say they get more out of it than the people they help. They spend time with terminally ill patients and their families and generally form close bonds with the people they’re caring for under the guidance of hospice professionals. Talk about a reason to get out of bed in the morning! And that’s exactly what Ann’s dad needs: a sense of purpose.

Volunteering for hospice isn’t for everyone, but there are so many other helpful things seniors can do to feel important and enrich their lives and the lives of others. Many join SCORE (Previously known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives) to mentor small business owners. SCORE volunteers have a lifetime of experience behind them that they can use to help others. The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) is another option that offers countless volunteer opportunities, such as mentoring children, providing companionship to homebound seniors and assisting victims of natural disasters.

It’s important to understand that most elders like Ann’s dad are not driving their family members crazy on purpose. They simply need something new to work towards. Finding an activity or volunteer opportunity that interests your loved one will improve their feelings of self-worth, and soon they won’t have time to tell you what to do. If they can’t volunteer on their own, then doing volunteer work together can help you grow closer, get out of the house and gain new experiences.

Encouraging Engagement in Senior Living

As our loved ones get older, they often seek out more simplistic living arrangements and/or begin requiring assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) and medical care. While most people associate independent living communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes with age-related decline, these settings offer many benefits to their residents. In addition to fewer (or no) household responsibilities and differing levels of care, senior living facilities provide varied and meaningful activities for elders of all abilities.

However, even if the move was their idea, some elders refuse to participate in these activities once they’ve settled in. They’d rather sit in their apartment or room alone, sometimes complaining about being bored. I’m often asked by frustrated adult children how to get elders to remain active in senior living. This is a very common occurrence in the first few weeks after the transition.

Many facilities will suggest limiting family visits after a move to let new residents acclimate and devise a new schedule on their own. But, if a loved one still hasn’t made an effort to get to know their new home and neighbors, family members may have to step in and help them get involved. Sometimes going through the activities calendar and even attending certain activities or events together can help break the ice.

It’s important to look into a facility’s activity and social options before moving in, but sometimes family members can make new suggestions for pastimes, outings and projects that their loved one and other residents might enjoy. Set a meeting with the activities director and perhaps one of an elder’s main nurses to discuss what steps might help them adjust and take advantage of all the community has to offer.

When Doing Nothing Becomes a Hobby

Some elders have always been negative or preferred spending time alone. Others fall into this rut as they age, their abilities change and their social circles shrink. Regardless of whether they live independently in their own home, with us or in a senior living facility, it is frustrating when someone we love refuses to participate in life. We only want the best for our loved ones, but as caregivers, we cannot expect to be successful in everything we attempt to do. In some cases, there is no encouraging or convincing a loved one to remain active. I experienced this firsthand with my mother.

When she moved to a nursing home—one she was very familiar with, since my uncle and my dad had already been living there for some time—she could still use her phone, watch TV and do her crossword puzzles. I also kept her magazine and newspaper subscriptions active. She had the ability and the resources to enrich her life, but aside from using her phone, nothing about what she did was social. She ate one meal a day with my dad and took all her other meals in her private room.

Mom had some memory problems, but her frequent falls were the reason she moved in the first place. She used her sore feet as an excuse not to go to the dining room for her meals and other activities. Eventually, her feet got better and her excuses for staying in her room got weaker. Mom had always been a social person, but now she just plain refused to interact with others. The facility offered activities that my mother would have thoroughly enjoyed in her younger days: card games, piano performances and social events. I worried about depression, but the doctors didn’t think medication was needed. She had friends that she could call, and I visited every day, yet she still spent the majority of her time alone.

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I know one of her main reasons for withdrawing was that she didn’t see herself being as “bad off” or as “old” as the other nursing home residents. It’s amazing how many elders subscribe to this very unique kind of denial. They often think, “I’m in a nursing home, but I’m in better shape than these folks. I don’t have anything in common with them.” Then it clicked. I finally figured out that Mom was consciously choosing not to participate because her interests had changed. Complaining was her new hobby, her new source of entertainment.

Mom had never been a negative person, but I think this new behavior was a passive-aggressive move. She had been frightened of living alone and being prone to falling, so she had made the decision to move into the nursing home. However, once she was there, she resented the move. Refusal to participate was her way of making her negative feelings known.

So, what did I do? I learned to accept that she would complain of boredom. I did everything I could to keep her busy and entertained, but then I learned to drop it. If she’d rather be bored and complain than have an aide help her to the common area or dining room to hear some lovely music or have tea with people who could become friends, then that was her choice.

We must remember that many elders can still make choices. We may not agree, we may not understand, and we may not think it’s the best thing for them, but they still have the right to make their own decisions. If they choose to be bored, then so be it.

It’s our choice, then, whether to let it bother us. At some point, we have to let go. Family caregivers must do this often throughout their journey and under many different circumstances. We must do our best to make a positive impact and then distance ourselves from the situation.

Detaching is easier if we remind ourselves that their choice is what they want. They are actually fine. We’re the ones who suffer, typically from self-induced guilt. If they enjoy complaining or being alone, why should we deprive them of that? It’s one of those times when our best is good enough. The rest is up to them. We can then shift our valuable time and energy to other things we can actually remedy.