Caring Currents

Nursing Home Boredom

Last updated: Nov 10, 2008

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Awhile back, I used to make weekly visits to a friend in a nursing home. Her home was the basic “Medicaid Package” (many of the residents were low-income), not a horrible place, but simple, without frills like field-trips or a gym.

I'll always remember the image of rows of residents in wheelchairs lining the  halls. Some were asleep, others staring into space. A few would smile as I walked by, reaching a hand up for a squeeze. So this is old age, I thought: sitting. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this gave me the creeps.

I know it's not so simple. As body and mind lose strength, options for activities shrink. Some of these seniors were oblivious to their environment. Some may have been perfectly OK sitting in the halls watching the nursing home world go by.

But the problem of aging and boredom are well known, especially for the frail elderly. It affects people regardless of where they live, in nursing homes or their own homes. It's a struggle for many caregivers.  Boredom so easily melts into depression.

I've been collecting ideas on ways to help frail elders stay engaged, particularly activities that aren't patronizing, or, better, that are dignifying. Here are ten:  

  1. Internet and email access. An easy-on-the body way to socialize and stay informed. If you can swing it, buy the senior in your care her own computer. A laptop is great for portability and can be used in a bed or chair. (I confess I'm a fan of those inspirational poems or prayers emailed daily -- little cyber visitors. Do an internet search on daily prayer or daily meditation to find something the person in your care might like.)
  2. Pets. Research backs up what many people already know: Pets help prevent loneliness. Cats are easy to care for. Dogs take more work but can be amazingly social. Check with your local Humane Society for adoption programs for seniors. It's also well-described in an article from the Humane Society of the United States. For those living in a nursing home, ask about visiting pet therapy programs.
  3. Senior peer counseling. Available in some areas, these wonderful nonprofit programs train seniors to help their peers with emotional issues. Home or phone sessions are usually options. To find local programs, do an internet search for senior peer counseling.
  4. Life story writing.  Many senior centers and adult education programs offer courses in senior life-history writing. If a senior isn't mobile, try contacting a program's instructor for home-based options. You can also try working with a senior at home. Start with a fresh, blank journal and comfortable pen. Or a computer, if preferred. Ask leading questions (see #5 below). It’s hard to write in a vacuum, so encouarge the person you're caring for to share her stories with you. For more guidance, read about how to create a legacy.
  5. Verbal life stories or oral histories. If a senior isn’t up for writing, encourage him to tell you his life stories. Prompt with specifics like, “Tell me about your wedding, first job, first time away from home, memories of your grandparents, first boyfriend/girlfriend, favorite vacation."  Make this a regular weekly session, or more often if you have time. Invite other family members to do the same.
  6. Seek advice or expertise. Everyone likes to be needed. Ask a senior for advice on something he's good at and you need help with. For example, making a pie curst (this would be my own grandma), building a fence, growing tasty tomatoes, dealing with a parenting dilemma. One nice thing about wisdom is that it can be passed on from a bed or chair.
  7. Wii or other video games. I've already written about the popularity of Wiis with seniors. Many video systems can be used while sitting or lying down and offer challenge, fun, and a fine motor workout. They can be played alone or with others.
  8. Indoor gardens. You don't need warm weather or even the outdoors to grow greenery. Flowers, herbs, and even vegetables can flourish indoors with the right lighting. Potted plants can be placed at chair or bed level. Use wheeled carts to help with accessibility. A quick internet search on indoor gardening brings up all kinds of helpful information, from books to websites.
  9. A personal "therapeutic" trainer. Not just for the buff or wealthy, some personal trainers specialize in working with frail seniors in their homes. Physical and occupational therapists also devise individual home-based exercise programs for seniors. It doesn’t need to be super costly -- you can hire an expert to teach you how to work with the senior in your care. Ask a doctor for referrals.
  10. Home-spun spa. There are all kinds of gentle, tender ways to pamper seniors at home, suited just for them. Some of my favorites: brushing hair, soaking feet in a bowl of warm, soapy water, pressing a warm or cool cloth on a forehead, applying hand lotion, polishing finger or toe nails.

Do me a favor and add to this list. I'd love to hear what you've found successful.

Photo by Flickr user Clagnaut under a Creative Commons attribution license.