5 Ways to Make Living With an Older Adult Easier

Try these simple solutions to ease the crankies and boost everyone's mood.
happy mom and daughter

One issue that family caregivers don't often talk about is how cranky everyone can get living under one roof -- especially if the person you're caring for is sometimes or often cranky. You know the toll that it can take on the entire household -- and how that person's mood can rub off on you. But how do you go about making your home a happier place?

First off, make sure that the person in your care isn't suffering from depression or a more serious mood-changing disease. After that, try these simple ways to cheer up a home -- and everyone in it.

1. Reach out and touch someone

Jenny is a caregiver who lives in South Dakota. When she'd get home from work, often with hands full of grocery bags, she use to holler out a greeting, "Hi, Ma," let the screen door shut behind her, and head straight into the kitchen. After one particularly trying day at work, Jenny walked in, hugged her mom, and then walked back to the car to get what she needed.

"I just hadn't thought about it before," she says. "I went in for that hug for myself, but I saw that it caught her off guard in a good way." It only took a few seconds, but Jenny realized she'd previously been sending her mom the wrong message: She was another chore on Jenny's to-do list. But the offer of a simple hug was that little bit of warmth her mom needed.

Touching those we care about releases oxytocin, a powerful hormone that helps us bond with others, lowers blood pressure, and reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Postmenopausal women often have low levels of oxytocin, but these hormones can be raised with a simple touch. If you're caring for someone who's battling disease, touch is a powerful healing agent.

How to get started: Every family has different ideas of what's normal touching. Some people are huggers and some aren't. If giving a hug is too out of character for you, then a simple remark such as, "Your hands look dry. Let me put some lotion on them" could lead to a soothing hand massage. Combing someone's hair or touching his or her arm can also be relaxing. Look for little ways to make physical contact every day.

2. Play some tunes

A house can seem loud when there are a lot of people living in it -- especially with everyone's electronic devices turned on. But don't dismiss the mood-enhancing power of choosing some of the sounds that fill up your home. The right kind of music can change the heartbeat of a household: Dixieland jazz gets most people tapping their toes, show tunes can bring back memories, bluegrass can evoke a larger American landscape, and the sound of ukuleles or to reggae can transport listeners to a distant and exotic place.

Caring.com senior editor Paula Spencer tells a story about the time her teenage son's guitar playing changed a "blah" day at his grandfather's assisted-living facility into an afternoon of residents and staff tapping their toes and swapping smiles. She also notes that music can bring back positive and deep-set memories even in those with advanced dementia.

How to get started: Just start playing the music you think everyone will like. Or try free Internet radio services, such as Pandora, which you can program with stations based on a favorite artist, song, or genre. It's best to introduce music when the person you're caring for isn't agitated or already preoccupied, since excess stimulation could have a reverse effect.

3. Eat together

The simple acting of eating can be a powerful mood booster. The mood-enhancing properties of dark chocolate have been touted for years, but sitting down with someone to an afternoon cup of tea and a piece of chocolate packs a double punch: It gives you the chance to take a physical break and helps you make an emotional connection to the person eating with you.

How to get started: Start by putting together a list of foods the person you're caring for likes and try to integrate them -- or healthy versions of them -- into your weekly meal planning. Keep healthy snacks on hand, such as carrots, yogurt, or nuts. If eating problems have created historically unhappy mealtimes for the person in your care, try having a sit-down chat at the main table -- without food. Just open up the paper and find some headlines to talk over.

4. Find the hammer that cracks a smile

People get cranky for a lot of reasons: physical aches or chronic pain, an unhappy life situation, having too much to do and not enough time to rest and recharge. And some of us just have a less-than-upbeat personality. But most people will crack a smile over something: babies, dogs, cats, or children -- even if they've been in a bad mood for what seems like forever. And here's good news: A recent study found that even in people with memory loss, the feeling of happiness often lasts longer than whatever triggered it. When a person with memory loss watches an old episode of I Love Lucy, for example, the smile lingers long after the show has ended.

One San Francisco Bay Area family, whose grandmother has Alzheimer's and lives with them for a few weeks at a time, enjoys sitting down to watch Two and a Half Men. Even though the grandmother often doesn't quite hear or understand all the dialogue, she cracks up just watching as the rest of the family laughs to tears over the week's antics.

How to get started: Try playing classic comedies, such as Abbot and Costello or the original Pink Panther movies. Bring in visitors who have a way of making everyone feel good. Or consider getting a pet. (If that's not an option, turn on your computer and download some slide shows of puppies, an aquarium screensaver, or other smile-inducing shots.) If grandchildren can't get home to visit, consider buying a digital photo frame and upload their photos so their grandparent can see what the kids are up to.

5. Keep things positive

This can get hokey, but once you find what works for your family, it has the potential to become tradition. Next time you're at the store, pick up some birthday candles and a pack of matches. You can turn anything into a celebration by dimming the lights, sticking a candle in a piece of food, and presenting it to someone who could use an emotional boost.

One caregiver in Fresno, California, says she does this quite often with her mom, who has Alzheimer's. She sings a quick ditty to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell": "We had a good day! We had a good day! Hi-ho the dairy-o, we had a good day!" She says her mom's face lights up, she claps, and it's an easy way to change her mood, especially if they've been having a less-than-stellar day.

How to get started: If your household is large, a good way to check in at the dinner table could be to take turns saying what each person is grateful for. Or just remind yourself: A woman in Boston who's caring for her aging father says she keeps little post-it notes next to her mirror that remind her of all the good things she has in her life. She says it's a helpful way to remember that starting the day off with a smile is really the only way to do it.

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8 months ago, said...

I scored a 25 on the burnout test. I am scared I may have a heart attack. I desperately need some help around the house. Our biggest problem is not only does my husband have dementia but he also is just plain depressed, has adult ADHD but I am disabled with all sorted of back problems plus severe scoliosis and my husband is disabled too on top of all of the other mental problems I told you he has , is it any wonder that I am ready for a burnout. I need some help fast!!! We are both disabled and I am supposed to be his caregiver please, this is a no win scenario.


about 2 years ago, said...

Many good ideas. I get task-driven to where I focus on those things I had planned to get done in a visit instead of person-focused. So I've slowed down to accomodate Dad's slower pace and we will have a snack and go over the things that are on his mind and try to address those concerns first. If the weather is nice, we might go out for ice cream or lunch. At church, he likes to sit and watch the children and babies more than anything, so I allot extra time. Been thinking about going to a neighborhood public pool so he can dangle his feet and watch the kids. He misses the life he had as a kid and being surrounded by family.


over 2 years ago, said...

great information on health


over 2 years ago, said...

great news


almost 3 years ago, said...

All very good ideas and examples! Thank you!


almost 3 years ago, said...

The ideas are simple,but commonly overlooked. I wouldn't miss my afternoon tea time for anything!


almost 3 years ago, said...

I'm reading this article at age 71 and it has given me some vital information regarding my own journey into early stages of this part of life. I'll continue to read and gather more incite into myself. Thanks Paul


almost 5 years ago, said...

gave good tips on how to connect to older people...how we can help to change the mood around if its down


almost 5 years ago, said...

I can see progressions, I get tools to keep mom safe and secure and keeps me calmer


about 5 years ago, said...

When dealing with the negativity that can be such a drag on a relationship and a household, try a little forgiveness. We are all humans, we all have hurt other's feelings, been rude, etc. etc. None of us wants to be remembered by our worst moments, but by our best moments. Let the old fall away into the past, and approach with love and joy. Forgive by the moment if necessary. Hanging on to bad feelings only poisons US -- it doesn't hurt the other person in the least. When I get old and crabby, I hope someone remembers forgiveness.


about 5 years ago, said...

Respite & Care Givers: Please... notice RECOMMENDed KEEP aggressive tracking of treatments ,care,& med. RECORDS of Blood sugar levels.......& comments on moods.Defiance handle with tackfulness. Abnormal "elevated" Bl. Sugar levels can be causing serious VEIN & ARTERY DAMAGES... with out you or the MD'S knowledge. "Sudden" consistant-YAWNING... tierness, sleepiness, moods, thirst, energy, defiant, irratability.........beyound the average regular symptoms told to you in HEALTH BOOKS. Try checking Bl. Sugars ("20 min.") after your last bite of food/meal...........observe moods, routine, frequency of BODY LANGUAGE after a meal or eating. you may save yourself or loved one a stroke, OR Heart Attack. or prevent them from going BLIND. RESPITE relief persons & trained professionals do not watch for these signs. medications...can raise Blood sugar levels causing high blood pressure & UNnecessary vein & artery damage.


about 5 years ago, said...

RESPITE: Prayer chains on websites for people to contact in emergencies,please list anyone willing to develope this. Relief for CAREGIVER....Essential, even just allow the FAMILY caregiver to step out side or go to the store......Have a supportive FAMILY "TEAM"...for relief . RESENTMENT by the FAMILY MEMBER(S) who are the care giver "Divides" the entire family........loosing a loved one, takes a lot of LOVE & UNDERSTANDING. Ministers would do well to not take sides. BUT be open minded.& promote to- getherness.


about 5 years ago, said...

Amazing article. Just reading it made me miss my mother and wanting to be more kind, more patient and missing the good ol' days....


over 5 years ago, said...

this has been so helpful , as my mom-in-law is 89. and has a caregiver. and i try to do a lot of this, and it does help all involved with her. she loves company and we have those that want to shy away , because they do not know how to relate to her. she has memory lapses, but is so sweet most of the time.. she lost her husband in 1995, and has lived alone . so i hope more people see this ... god bless our elderly.....


over 5 years ago, said...

To those of you that are taking care of elderly ones, it is an awesome task, and you have to mix all of that care with joy, peace, patience, love, faith, longsuffering', temperance, kindness, and goodness. These are the fruit of the Spirit. These are the characteristics of a God filled heart. In the process of caring for your loved one or client, It is the Spirit of God that gives you the ability to endure, I consider the fact that one day I may live to get old, and If I take care of them and do it with love, God will have someone there for me when I get old. I know it is rough, but a lot of things go through their mind, Its not only what is behind them, but the thought of what is before them. Where will they spend eternity? What's going to happen to my belongings when I leave? Are they going to put me in the Nursing home? I took care of a ninety year-old lady in 2005. I loved her as she was my Granny. I never yelled at her, snatched on her, never said anything to disdain her self worth. But I hugged her, kissed her on the forehead, sang with her, ministered the Word of God to her, she was a musician, so I brought one of my keyboards for her to play , we ate what we wanted, went to church, went shopping, went site seeing, visited her elderly friends, and she would tell me stories. We had a wonderful relationship. The key is to let them keep on living in the areas where they can still do things. Being Old is just another chapter in the book that God wrote on our life, He still expect for us to live through that chapter, too. I pray that this comment will encourage you as you hug, touch, conversate, smile, and take care of your wonderful person that God has placed in your care. Watch your WORDS!


over 5 years ago, said...

it was so positive and upbeat and served to remind us what older people need most--love and touch from others who care! My Mom is 90 and still lives alone, but I know that soon she will need to move in with me and I want to be all that she needs. Thanks!


over 5 years ago, said...

I found it interesting because when my mom first came home I did her hair, skin....now I just feel like a zombie, just taking care of the medication, meals and stuff like that...I think I forgot about the hugs and stuff, I have to be sure to add them back in...


over 5 years ago, said...

I find this article very interesting because when my husband and I agreed to take care of his mother, I took pride in doing allot of the things mentioned. My MIL felt threatened that I was taking over her house. We all chose to live together, but it is her house. I did/do the housekeeping, cooking, moving, decorating and ask input from her, but to no avail. She runs to her room as we say, and that is where she spends her time unless we are gone. She is very negative and now nearly 4 years later, she is 79, the negativeness invades my being. I have found myself depressed, lethargic, but not lazy because I still take care of the household and kept her nutrition needs in order. I refuse hugs from her because she is looking for her control of things with my husband and myself and has placed him in a situation where she has accused me taunting, taking things, etc. She did that over a year ago and then approached me to give me a good night hug. Some families may play those games, but I don't. I feel for her but when I'm getting close to by passing her prejudices, she does it again. One thing for sure, she is always ready to eat when dinner is ready--no problem and she enjoys that her house is clean and can receive company anytime without worrying about how her house looks. Good article but obviously, I have been around the negative too long.


over 5 years ago, said...

Hi I take care of my dad with Dementia. Most of the things you speak about is already practiced in my home. By hearing it from someone else just made it more real for me. Thank you and keep up the good work.


over 5 years ago, said...

I have noticed that I get along better with my mother-in-law if I act normal, and don't walk around as if walking on egg shells. She is very moody, but I can get her to smile by saying something funny. I usually touch her when we pass, and we get along better now than we did. After reading this I will use more opportunities to touch, and smile at her.