While caring for my elderly parents, I was often advised to enroll them in a local adult day care program. Well-meaning people explained that going to the adult day center would give my mom and dad a life outside of lying in bed and watching TV all day. They also emphasized that I would get a much-needed break while they were out of the house. As nice as that sounded, I must admit I quietly scoffed at these suggestions for months. I couldn’t even get my father to take a shower on a regular basis, so how was I supposed to get him to attend a senior center?

A year later (and at my wits’ end), I decided adult day care was worth a try after I toured the beautiful facility nearby. I pleaded with my father for weeks before he begrudgingly agreed to go. Mom, on the other hand, was open to the idea right away. At the end of their first day at the center, she giggled, “Oh, honey, guess what? I won some lovely new earrings at bingo!”

Unfortunately, my father had quite a different experience because he was determined to sabotage the idea from the start. I was so embarrassed when the staff told me they had spent that whole first day trying to manage him. He wouldn’t leave my mother alone, holding onto her too tight and touching her inappropriately (which he had never done before). Apparently, he threw his lunch on the floor during a temper tantrum and even tried to escape out a bathroom window. By the time I arrived to pick up my parents, the staff members were completely exhausted and sincerely doubted he would ever be a good fit there.

Although I did my best when initially pitching the idea of adult day care, it didn’t exactly go over well. Like most caregivers, I’ve spent ample time reflecting on mishaps like this one and thinking over all the other ways I could’ve handled things better. I’ve brainstormed a few different ideas that I think would’ve helped convince my father to attend the adult day center without causing a scene. Hopefully, these tips can help fellow caregivers who are interested in adult day care avoid the mistakes I made!

Introducing the Idea of Adult Day Care

The very first change I would make is to avoid referring to adult day care as such. For most people, the term “day care” evokes images of young children who can’t take care of themselves and require total supervision. Understandably, many seniors find this term condescending and infantilizing. Alternative names include day center, senior center and even “the club.” You know your loved one best, so try to find a term that would appeal to them.

I would’ve also tried to introduce the social worker from the adult day center to Dad on a social basis first. A few phone calls or even a home visit will allow a staff member to develop a commitment-free relationship with a senior in a safe space. If this goes well, then your care recipient will recognize at least one familiar face at the day center, which can help them feel more comfortable.

When it comes to actually getting a senior to go to the center, I think that framing it as an opportunity rather than an obligation can help immensely. For my dad, an invitation from one of the staff to assist with an activity or event would’ve made a huge difference in his willingness to attend. By giving my father a “job” to do or a volunteer opportunity and telling him he was needed there, he would have felt honored to go help out.

This approach can also work if you plan to drop by the local center for a low-key tour and introduction under the guise of saying hello to your “friend,” the social worker or an administrator. Again, communicating with a staff member beforehand about your loved one’s apprehension and personality traits can help them navigate the situation better. They can ask your loved one to pitch in with preparing and/or serving lunch if they enjoy cooking or request assistance with folding laundry—an activity my mother always enjoyed.

Helping a senior strike up a friendship with someone at the center and presenting them with an opportunity for an increased sense of purpose can be very valuable steps in convincing them to give adult day services a try.

Helping Seniors Adjust to Adult Day Care

One thing I especially regret is sending my parents to adult day care by themselves on the first day. I now understand how scary any kind of change can be for an elder, particularly for someone who is in the beginning or middle stages of dementia. My father was used to always being in control of his environment. So, when I dropped him and Mom off at the center, it completely overwhelmed him and he acted out.

If you anticipate any issues like the ones my dad caused, then it’s best to opt for a gradual introduction and transition to minimize stress and aggravation for everyone involved. In a redo, I’d be sure to go with my parents to the center as many times as needed until I was sure my father felt comfortable and safe enough for me to leave.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

I know that one of the points of adult day care is to provide you, the caregiver, with a break, but easing into things will ensure this is a lasting option for respite care. My father almost wasn’t welcomed back after his chaotic first day at the center. To me, a little bit of hand-holding is well worth keeping all your options open.

The Benefits of Adult Day Care

Even though I went about introducing adult day care all wrong, eventually I succeeded in getting my father to accept the routine of going to “the center.” My parents finally had someplace to go during the day, friends to socialize with and numerous activities to look forward to. Best of all, the activities tired them both out so much that they finally slept through the night. This meant I got some sleep, too! The burden of caring for and entertaining them both during the day was dramatically reduced, along with my blood pressure.

It wasn’t long before my parents became shining success stories. They progressed so dramatically in their behavior and strength that even their doctors were impressed. I was delighted that they were emotionally and physically healthier than they’d been in years, thanks to the increased activity and socialization at the center.

Now, as I lecture all over the country about caregiving issues, I always emphasize the tremendous value of adult day care, what I consider the best kept secret in elder care. I smile each time I hear fellow caregivers express the same reluctance I once had: “Oh, Jacqueline, my loved one would never agree to such a thing!” But then I explain that, with a little extra creativity, effort and patience, adult day care can make a significant difference in the lives of even the most challenging seniors and the lives of their overwhelmed caregivers.