Whether you are a relative, an aide, a volunteer or an activities director you may find it challenging to come up with new ideas for enjoyable and rewarding activities for seniors. In this article, we will introduce some fun and easy activities along with advice on determining which activities are best for your seniors. Read on to learn more.
It’s not “One size fits all!”
Individualised, “person centred care” is essential. One reason many activities fail to generate enthusiasm at nursing homes and assisted living centres is a one-size-fits-all attitude on the part of staff. When planning activities, it’s important to take the time to get to know the participants individually and learn their interests and abilities. When you know this, you can pinpoint precise, individual activities each person is sure to enjoy as well as successful group activities.
For seniors experiencing memory loss and those who have not yet experienced it, moving into a nursing home or assisted living can be a confusing experience. Use of clear, attractive signage to let them know where important things are kept, what a particular room is used for and so on can be very helpful in retaining a sense of competence and independence. This will go a long way toward keeping the person engaged, active and hopeful. Signs should be nicely integrated into the decor so as not to look institutional.
As the person gets his or her bearings in the new environment, mind stimulating activities such as storytelling can be enjoyable and a great way to get to know your senior so that you can come up with even more meaningful activities. Storytelling can be one-on-one or done as a group activity.
A good way to get started is to put slips of paper with a wide variety of topics into a container. You can make these up yourself, ask for suggestions from those participating or set up a suggestion box in advance of the event. Each participant can draw a suggested topic and then talk about the topic by telling a story from his or her own life. You can establish a time limit or not, allow questions and discussion or not depending on your circumstance.
Memory care activities
Incorporate music as much as possible
Music is a great icebreaker and provides good opportunities to learn about your senior. Even if the person is not communicative, you can often make good headway by sharing favorite old songs. A set of headphones and an iPod loaded with popular songs from the person’s youth can stimulate the thought processes, bring back memories and open communication.
The documentary, Alive Inside, shows how powerful music can be, especially for seniors with dementia.
This kind of music therapy can be very effective even for very completely unresponsive seniors, and once you are able to get the person engaged, you may be surprised at how much more able he or she becomes to engage even more activities.
TIP: Set up an intergenerational program with the help of middle school or high school kids or a church youth group to help with Alive Inside activities!
CCES Alive Inside
Have a singalong!
Singing old familiar songs is a fun activity whether you are just visiting a relative on your own or organizing a group activity for the residents. Music is always a great way to get people of all ages engaged and smiling. Lyrics to old songs are readily available to download free online.
Avoid busywork activities
Even simple activities such as sorting objects and working puzzles can help provide some movement and focus, but be careful not to present these simple tasks as busy work. Instead, ask your senior to help you:
- Check and see if a donated puzzle or game has all of its pieces. The person might choose to work the puzzle or play the game, or he or she might simply count the pieces, either way, it’s a useful task that helps sharpen cognitive ability and improves fine motor skills.
- Organise your sewing box by sorting a jar of buttons by size and/or colour.
- Arrange craft materials for a planned activity.
In a nursing home or assisted living setting, some residents enjoy doing light chores in their rooms or around the facility. Get to know your residents and assign light tasks as appropriate. Examples include:
- Dust with a feather duster
- Prepare and enjoy a light snack.
- Arrange flowers for the dining room tables
- Organise the magazines in the visiting area
- Pass out juice boxes to other residents at snack time.
There are many small, easy tasks to be done in a senior facility. When residents are allowed/asked to help, it can give them a sense of ownership and belonging. Of course, this sort of activity should never be required, but residents who would enjoy taking part appreciate the opportunity.
Welcome young friends
Many seniors (especially retired teachers) enjoy helping kids with homework or, reading aloud for children. If your senior is a relative, he or she might enjoy the opportunity to spend this kind of quality time with your children.
If you are an assisted living activities director, look into arranging visits from children’s groups that will give your residents the opportunity to welcome young guests. Invite a Sunday school class, scout troop or other group of children to visit for cookies and games, an Easter Egg hunt, a sing-along, a movie matinee or some other special event.
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Official photographer for a day
Many seniors (and others) enjoy taking photos of special events, but very often the person who is perceived as being in charge takes all the pictures (and ends up not being in any of them!) Instead, try equipping your senior(s) with inexpensive digital or disposable cameras to take their own pictures and make their own memories of special visits and activities or day-to-day life in their new surroundings.
You can enjoy looking through the resulting photos and make a scrapbook together. Choose the best ones to enlarge and frame to decorate your family member’s bedside table or room.
If you are an activity director in a nursing home or assisted living centre, place these framed photos prominently on the mantelpiece, on side tables and in wall displays. Having their own photos on display will help your residents feel truly at home.
Plants & pets reduce stress
Caring for a plant or a pet or working in a garden (raised bed gardens are best) also provides a sense of purpose and being needed. If it is not possible to keep a pet in the nursing home or assisted living, perhaps you could arrange for visits with your own pet, or a therapy animal.
Live plants kept at the bedside, on the dining tables, in window boxes, throughout the facility and/or in the courtyard provide opportunities for residents to care for a living thing.
Purposeful activities for dementia
Fitness is possible for people of all abilities
Exercise is very important, but you may need to start out with assisted range of motion (ROM) exercises or very gentle chair or bed exercises for people who are recovering from an illness or have been very inactive for any reason.
Move it or lose it!
Light exercise improves blood circulation, which in turn, improves cognitive abilities. As a person becomes more engaged add mild enjoyable exercise. Make it fun and surprising to stimulate interest and enthusiasm. For example, if a person has been bed-bound for a long time, try taking turns blowing bubbles. It may make a little bit of a mess, but the amount of delight it will generate is worth it, and blowing is very good exercise for the lungs.
Introduce simple as hand, arm and finger exercises, head and neck stretches, shoulder rolls, foot and ankle flexes and other small, gentle, feel-good exercises that are easy and satisfying.
Learn sign language together. This is a great way to exercise the hands, arms and facial muscles and keep communication skills alive. The learning stimulates communication pathways in the brain and the signing, itself, provides fine motor benefits.
Learning to sign simple songs is a fun way to learn, and participants who learn well often delight in having a “secret language” to use with friends. Throw in a few survival signs (help, hurt, cold, etc.) to provide the person with an alternative way of communicating, just in case.
As your senior becomes stronger (or for those who are already strong) introduce chair exercises for those who are not fully ambulatory and light walking and games for those who are.
Chair exercise and dancing
Let the Games begin!
Simple, affordable equipment can be used to create fun games for seniors.
- Balloon toss (aka: “Heads Up!) can be a safe, challenging, stimulating, enjoyable activity for two or more people. It can be done sitting or standing, depending upon ability. It’s a great choice as an intergenerational activity.
One way to play is to toss the balloon back and forth or randomly around a circle of participants. The person tossing the balloon should say the name of the person catching and ask a simple question such as “What’s your favorite colour?” The catcher should answer, say the name of the person who will catch next, ask another simple question and toss.
This is a fun ice-breaker and a great way for two people or a group to get acquainted. Also, for seniors who are able, blowing up balloons is a good form of lung exercise!
- Familiar sports are enjoyable for people of all abilities, and there are many ways of enjoying them. For example, a senior who is non-ambulatory or has limited strength could enjoy Wii bowling or play free online bowling games.
Adaptive bowling games are available for non-ambulatory people to use at home. Some bowling alleys keep adaptive equipment on hand or have special events from time-to-time for non-ambulatory bowlers. Those who are able would surely enjoy this sort of special outing.
A lightweight, inexpensive plastic bowling game can be kept on hand for more active seniors to enjoy hallway or courtyard bowling. This sort of inexpensive equipment can be stored in an open place where residents can access it easily and choose to play whenever they wish.
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Choice & independence are essential factors in fun for seniors
A good nursing home or assisted living facility is set up in a way that provides residents with real choices and the freedom to choose. Residents should feel genuinely at home, and they should have some sense of autonomy and the ability to select activities and plan their own lives as much as possible.
Whether you are helping your loved one set up his or her living space or running the senior activities programme at a nursing home or assisted living, remember to make everyday recreational activities freely available. If your senior only has a bedside table, keep it stocked with books to read or listen to, cards, sewing projects, puzzles or whatever seated activities the person enjoys.
In a larger setting, establish an open activity area or room where people can sit in recliner chairs and talk, read, choose games to play and work puzzles. You will lose some game pieces and puzzle pieces, and things will get broken. Don’t let this bother you. Books, games and puzzles (very frequently donated items) are easy to replace, but a sense of autonomy and freedom is not.