The seniors in our life inspire us. As kids and grandkids, we know from our own experience. But sometimes, it can be difficult to keep them engaged with activities that they can enjoy. Here’s a list of 10 activities for seniors based on our memories with our grandparents.
As caregivers, we spend a lot of time of timing worrying about our loved ones. The least of our worries should be finding fun activities. So, to make it easy, we’ve come up with our own list, based on memories with the seniors in our lives. For many of us, those afternoons and evening spent in the company of our grandparents led to a lifelong passion: cooking, photography, museums, and music. We decided to share those activities in the hope that it will inspire others. Most, we believe, are better than bingo.
1 - Cooking: Experiment in the Kitchen
When Angela Z. thinks of her grandmother, she thinks of spring onion rolls. In fact, she can practically taste them. Angela grew up in the kitchen helping her grandmother, watching and learning as her grandmother kneaded the dough, the flour dusting her fingers, and then rolled it out before letting Angela spread the filling. Sometimes, when they were feeling adventurous, they’d put peanut butter inside as a special treat. Angela’s favorite part was the final step when her grandmother would take the ends and fold them into flowers, pinching the dough between her fingers. Angela never quite had her grandmother’s touch, but as her grandmother told her, in the end, they’d all be eaten anyway.
Cooking is a great activity for seniors, and the sights, smells, and tastes can be a wonderful adventure. The tactile nature of the work, as well as the aromas, heat, and vibrance of the kitchen engages our minds on multiple levels. Try new recipes and experiments, like the ones featured here.
2 - Photography: See the World Through A Different Lens
Francis W. rarely saw her grandfather without a camera around his neck. He wore his camera strap like a scarf, adorning every outfit. At home, he had stacks of old photo albums scattered around the house and sometimes Francis would leaf through them. Looking at the shots of her grandfather, Francis saw a side of him she hadn’t seen before—a softer side with his hat pulled over his eyes as he looked sideways at the camera. For once, he was the subject, not the photographer, and for the first time Francis could imagine her grandfather as a young man—a boy, a student, a father. She could imagine the life he carried with him—the life that made him who he was today. Through the snapshots, Francis found a family history she hadn’t heard before, hidden in the dusty pages of the family photo album.
Photography is a wonderful activity for seniors, especially where memories are murky. Taking and quickly printing photos can increase recall of recent events. Comparing shots of the same objects like a flower or a plate of food can deepen our experience of the present moment with a loved one.
3 - Local Outings: Sample Your Surroundings (One Flavor at a Time)
Caroline K. can thank her grandmother for her sweet tooth. Whenever her grandmother picked her up from school, they’d head straight to the local café for a frozen yogurt. They both knew what they would order, but that didn’t stop them from tasting every flavor first. During the heat of summer, they’d go after Caroline’s softball games, and Caroline would eat so quickly, she’d have to press her thumb to the roof of her mouth to stop the brain freeze, just as her grandmother had taught her. Then, when Caroline turned 17, their roles reversed. The day Caroline got her license, the first thing she did was drive to her grandmother’s house to take her out for Froyo.
Outings are an energizing activity for seniors. It’s easy to create a ritual like getting tea, going to the library, or walking to the corner store together. Especially if the staff are friendly, it can make a wonderful difference in the life of a loved one to get outside and interact with new people.
4 - Games: Tom and Jerry Turns into Tug of War
The first thing Aunty Abena did when Akua N. walked into the house was wrap her in the warmth of her arms. Her embrace was always accompanied by a long “atuuuu”, which in Akan culture is the verbal acknowledgement of one’s gratitude for another’s presence. Once Aunty Abena finally let go, Akua and Aunty would sit on the couch and watch Tom and Jerry with Akua and her brother George cocooned under each of Aunty’s arms. When they’d had enough of Tom and Jerry’s antics, Akua and George would beg Aunty to play “the pulling game” and when she finally conceded, they’d run to grab a blanket from the bedroom. With George holding one end and Akua holding the other beside him, Aunty Abena would gather the rest of the blanket and, without warning, pull them towards her. Akua always thought she might catch Aunty by surprise, but Aunty Abena was always one step ahead. In the end, Akua and George would finally give in and fall toward her, ending up right back where they started—wrapped in Aunty Abena’s arms.
Playful games like tug-of-war, patty-cake, and peek-a-boo make excellent activities for seniors. Especially where a cognitive impairment is present, increasing physical touch and tactile connection has been shown to reduce agitation.
5 - Bingo: Go Back to a Classic
Like a lot of seniors, Elana’s grandparents were big bingo fans. But, bingo in Elana’s family wasn’t like bingo at the senior center. It was a bit more colorful—literally. The whole family would dress in tie dye and her grandparents would play disco music on an old CD. Her grandmother had all the bingo cards stored in the closet and would bring them down for the special occasion. Once everyone had a card, the proceedings would begin with Elana’s uncle Andrew calling out the numbers. Most of the parents would wait for the kids to call “Bingo”, but Elana’s grandfather was fiercely competitive. He’d pad the pot, but he was planning to win big, too. On one occasion, Elana and her grandfather were head to head, each with only a chip to go, when Uncle Andrew called her lucky number. When she returned with her winnings, Elana saw her grandfather quickly cover his card. He, too, had had the winning number, but this time, he’d left the victory for her.
Even though it’s a cliche, bingo is an amazing activity for seniors and the whole family. It calls on numerical reasoning, short-term memory, and audio-visual connection to keep brains active and healthy. And a little competition never hurts.
6 - Gardening: Plant a Seed, Put Down Roots
During high school, Alia often helped her grandfather in the garden. Her grandfather had always had a green thumb and was happiest with his feet buried in the soil and his hands covered in dirt. He loved his sheers and his gloves, but his prized possession was his book on pruning roses—a book as big as the Bible. In her grandfather’s house, it was assigned summer reading. As her grandfather often reminded Alia, rose pruning had plenty of life lessons to offer—she just needed to open her mind. When her grandfather could no longer work in the garden, Alia took his place as he stood on the sidelines directing her with his spade. With her feet sinking into the soil and her grandfather’s voice in her ear, Alia finally felt the pleasure of pruning roses.
Gardening is an amazing activity for seniors in the spring and summertime. Is there anything better than the feel of dirt under your fingertips? The scents of a garden and the fresh breezes will revitalize and invigorate anyone, regardless of age. And the end result is beautiful flowers that will be incredible gifts to all.
7 - Memoir Writing: Take A Trip Down Memory Lane
Amy’s father’s lifelong dream was to write a memoir. He had grown up in England during World War II and kept a collection of poems and stories from his childhood. Most of his work was handwritten, scrawled in letters so small, Amy had to squint to read them. But, once he had his iPad Pro, his sentences came to life. Amy would often hear him late into the night, stabbing away at the keys with his two index fingers. With Amy’s help, he uploaded his work to the cloud and then moved to social media, joining the seniors flocking to Facebook. Despite repeatedly telling her father that Instagram was for photos, he insisted on posting his poetry. Now, Amy’s convinced that her dad has even more followers than she does as the modern-day Hemingway of Instagram.
Writing memoir with seniors in an incredible activity for the whole family. Younger generations get to absorb the incredible force of their memories while older generations have the experience of reliving and appreciating their past. Recordings and manuscripts will preserve the endeavor for years to come.
8 - Art: Travel Back In Time
The first time she stepped foot in a museum, Madeline was barely old enough to walk. On the weekend, her Gaga, her grandmother, would take Madeline’s hand as she tottered around the exhibits. Her Gaga could spend hours wandering the museum, long after most of the visitors had lost interest and left. Afterward, they’d go out for lunch and get grilled cheeses, fries, and a large milkshake to split from Tommy’s Restaurant down the road. These days, it’s Madeline who takes her Gaga’s hand, guiding her grandmother through the museum as her Gaga once led her. Together they visit her Gaga’s favorites—the ancient Egyptian exhibit, the Renaissance room, and the Impressionist collection.
Art offers an amazing activity for seniors in so many forms. Exploring galleries or even just books of famous paintings can offer opportunities for conversation and impressions. Painting, sculpture, collage, and even simply coloring will engage minds and hands as well as hearts.
9 - Fishing: Get Your Feet Wet (and maybe the rest of you, too)
Steve wouldn’t have made it past the ripe age of 10 if not for his grandfather. The whole family was on a deep-sea fishing trip in Florida. By mid-morning, Steve had already gotten a few bites, but it wasn’t until halfway through the day that he felt a sharp tug on his line. He lifted his rod up and below him, a small shark surfaced in the water. The shark pulled at the line, tugging Steve along with it. Before he knew it, he was falling over the side. He saw his short life flash before his eyes before his grandfather leaned down, grabbed him, and pulled him back into the boat. Steve had learned his lesson; the next fishing trip, he stayed close to his grandfather’s side, knowing that if he went in, his grandfather would jump in right after him.
Fishing and other water-based activities are amazing for seniors. The water brings unique sights, sounds, and smells to stimulate all the senses and trigger old memories as new ones are being built.
10 - Dancing: Don’t Stop the Music
Aidan grew up watching her grandparents dance. Every birthday, Memorial Day party, and wedding, her 80-year-old grandparents were the first on the dance floor and the last to leave when the night ended. Over the years, she learned to jitterbug with her Omi, waltz with her Opa, and do the Can-can with her cousins. Still, no one could compete with her Omi. Her grandmother would dance for so long that by the end of the night, she’d limp off to bed, holding her hip and leaning on a grandchild for support. When her grandfather turned 90, he was forced into a wheelchair, no longer able to trust his legs beneath him. He could not waltz with his wife or spin the grandkids, but that didn’t stop him from instructing. As he watched from his seat, he’d shout out orders, reminding the grandkids to feel the rhythm and move with the music. Now, even dancing at a club or a college party, Aidan still thinks of her grandfather twirling her as a girl and the memory of her grandparents waltzing around the living room.
Dancing is perhaps the best activity for seniors on the whole list. Music can come from any decade, and evoke so many memories. It can be done sitting, standing, or laying down. It releases endorphins and soothes the soul, while picking up heartbeats and improving circulation. Let’s dance!
The Best Activities for Seniors are the Ones that Bring Us Together
There are plenty of resources suggesting the best activities for seniors, but what matters most is not the content but the company. Our companions enjoy photography, memoir writing, and museums, but more than that, they enjoy the experience of sharing a passion with another person. In the end, it’s not so much the activities we do, but the people we do them with.