Moving to senior living is often a difficult transition for aging loved ones. Even elders who are on board with the decision to relocate to an independent living community, assisted living community or skilled nursing facility are likely to encounter some obstacles when trying to become more familiar with their new living environment and neighbors. The whole experience can be overwhelming, and many seniors initially react by withdrawing into their new room or apartment instead of making friends and joining in activities.

This can be frustrating and heartbreaking for family caregivers who are looking on from the outside, wishing their parents would take advantage of all the opportunities a new home has to offer. This transition often takes time, but there are some ways to encourage a loved one to socialize and get involved.

A Caregiver’s Experience Encouraging Parents to Socialize in Senior Living

For most of my parents' marriage, Mom was a social butterfly, while Dad was quieter and more introverted. He was capable of handling social situations but attended group events mainly to please Mom. Then, overnight, our family's world turned upside down. Dad needed surgery to correct the effects of an old brain injury he’d incurred in World War II. The procedure backfired, and he came out of the operating room with full-blown dementia. His current living situation was no longer appropriate, so he moved into a nursing home nearby. Three years later, Mom's own health problems worsened, and she decided to join Dad at the same facility.

In terms of socialization, my parents’ transitions to nursing home life were the exact opposite of what we expected. In his newly demented state, Dad suddenly loved taking part in social activities when he felt up to it. Mom, however, declined all opportunities to socialize. She watched TV, did crossword puzzles and read magazines by herself in her room, and she wouldn't join in group activities or interact with the other residents. The only time she left her room was to walk down the hall to visit with my father in his own private room.

Once, when I asked Mom why she remained holed up in her room, her reply was that she didn't want to socialize with all those “old people.” I was taken aback—Mom had never been a social snob. The only reason I could think of to explain away this behavior was that she was in denial. In her mind, if she didn't socialize with the other residents, then she wouldn't have to admit to herself that she was one of “them.”


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Techniques for Getting a Parent to Socialize in Senior Living

As time went on, I did make some progress with Mom, mainly by helping her feel useful around the nursing home. Every senior has a different demeanor and level of social interaction that they’re comfortable with. Furthermore, it’s important to understand that a senior’s social life may change over time and become drastically different from the one they led when they were younger. You know them best, so you may have to get creative when encouraging them to “join in.”

If you have parents who are not participating in activities offered by the assisted living facility or nursing home where they live, try using these tips to help them adjust and feel more comfortable interacting with their peers.

  • First, recognize that it takes time for new residents to break into already existing friend groups. Be patient with your loved one and don't push too hard. In addition to being “the new kid on the block,” moving into a facility means admitting to themselves that they are facing health issues and becoming increasingly dependent on others. Encourage socialization but do so gently.
  • This adjustment period may last a few weeks or months, depending on your loved one’s health and how outgoing they are. During this time, observe what is happening in the facility and get a feel for the friend groups and recreational opportunities there. Is there a group of “grumpy old men” who gather in the common room and enjoy complaining about the world or sharing stories—perhaps just like your dad? That could be a potential new friend group for him. Is there a clique of women who like Wii bowling or crafting? Maybe your mom would eventually be interested in joining them. A basic understanding of the resident dynamics and the activities available at their senior living community will help you sift through opportunities and make suggestions that are more likely to be successful.
  • Conversely, familiarize yourself with solitary activities the facility offers. For example, is there a workshop where your dad could tinker around or build something independently with minimal interference from others? Is there a knitting group where your mom could sit quietly and listen until she gets comfortable enough to join in the chatter? Simply getting your loved one to leave their apartment is a huge milestone because it at least presents an opportunity to interact with others if they so choose. Common areas like sitting rooms and dining rooms are a great neutral setting where residents can mingle and introductions and conversations can occur naturally.
  • If your loved one enjoys reading books, magazines or newspapers, see if the facility has a swapping program set up. If there isn’t one, see if you can organize one. My mom loved her magazine subscriptions, but old issues would quickly pile up in her room. I asked around the nursing home to find other women who liked to read magazines and started an informal swap group. It was a win-win because the other residents got to benefit from Mom’s reading materials free of charge. Better yet, when the ladies would stop by her room to pick up new magazines, it led to some friendly interaction, without Mom having to go out of her way to participate or admit to socializing. This was a great icebreaker for her.
  • If music is a hobby, or was a vocation for your parent, see if he or she would like to play their instrument of choice for the community. My mother-in-law played the piano for the first time in years because of staff encouragement at the nursing home where she lived. She absolutely loved it and so did the staff and other residents.
  • Does your mom or dad like to bake? Many facilities have staff members who will help residents bake or cook. Time spent together in the kitchen can lead to some fun experiences where people forget themselves enough to let their guard down and 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 the staff with small tasks or look after other residents with more severe limitations. Nearly everyone likes to feel useful, and a diminishing sense of purpose in life can cause seniors to feel apathetic and directionless. For example, if your dad still has full mobility, then he may be able to help push another resident in their wheelchair to the dining room or hand out snacks in the afternoons. If Mom used to work in an office, see if the administrative staff could use help stuffing envelopes or making flyers for upcoming community events. These opportunities would help them feel as if they are performing a service and giving back, yet they’d still be getting vital stimulation and social interaction.

Speak with the Senior Activities Director

Most senior housing facilities have an activities director whose job is to get to know their residents and their interests and abilities. If your aging parent is still resistant to participating or claims that none of the community’s offerings appeal to them, request a one-on-one meeting with the activities director to brainstorm ways to help them get involved.

Let this staff member know about your loved one’s unique interests. If your mom has been interested in yoga for seniors, perhaps they can look into adding a seated yoga class to the activity calendar. If your dad loves jigsaw puzzles, maybe the activities director can set aside a table where several people can work on a large puzzle for an extended period without it being disturbed. Use your imagination and information about your loved one to help the staff better meet their residents’ needs. You may wind up providing valuable ideas that hadn't been considered before and that other residents might enjoy.

Some Seniors Don’t Want an Active Social Life

Your parents may never be the life of the party at their senior living facility. Hopefully, with time, they will begin to socialize in their own way. You may even be surprised. My quiet dad loved to drum along with the music during Friday performances—something none of my family would ever have envisioned.

On the other hand, some seniors have simply never been very social or may have become less outgoing with age. Many are content keeping to themselves. The best that you can do is encourage Mom or Dad to expand their horizons ever so slightly. Perhaps offer to accompany them to activities or meals occasionally to help them feel more comfortable in unfamiliar territory and ensure they don’t remain holed up in their apartment.

You may feel guilty about their self-imposed isolation and lack of engagement, but at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do. You can’t force your parents to get involved. Being a caregiver isn’t for the faint of heart, even after your loved one moves into senior living. Just focus on choosing your battles wisely and supporting your loved one as best you can.