When we look back on a year, what do we remember? We can only keep so many memories in our head—our brain will deliberately not remember certain repetitive actions, and certainly doesn’t store every second of our daily commutes. Similar activities tend to blend together, so the memory of a Tuesday in June might be indistinguishable from a Thursday in November.
What does spark a new memory? Days, moments, that stand out. We remember the new experiences, the events that make our brain say, “That’s worth remembering!” And this holds true no matter how old we are.
That’s why caregivers of active older adults need to pledge, right from the start of the year, to help create new experiences and new memories. After all, we never stop growing. Getting older doesn’t mean giving up a sense of adventure, of exploration, the desire to experience something out of the ordinary. It doesn’t have to mean settling into a routine.
As the caregiver to an older adult who loves to engage with the world, it’s good for both of you to make the most out of 2017. Doing so can increase the health of your loved one, prevent your own burnout, and make you both far happier. So go into this year pledging that the same old won’t be the same old this year. As a caregiver, you can make that change. You can make this year different.
10 Resolutions for Caregivers to Encourage the Active Older Adults in Their Life
1. I will encourage exercise. Exercise helps keep the body and the mind healthy for older adults. And these days, with nearly every gym in the Bay Area offering programs for seniors, it’s easier than ever to reap those benefits. Improving cardiovascular health, bone strength, and fighting off mental depression are all important benefits of exercise for older adults. But you don’t have to join a gym—there are great walking trails all over the Bay Area. Your loved one may appreciate the physical challenge of exercise, giving them a goal to work toward—and giving you two something to share together.
2. I will encourage socialization. For many older adults, the only person they see with any regularity is their caregiver. And that’s not bad if it’s a relationship based on love. But they may appreciate other company, as well. More importantly, they need it. Seniors who lack socialization are more prone to depression, anxiety, mental illness, and even suicidal thoughts. They may feel their world is sadly narrowed, and they may feel guilty for narrowing yours. So this year, encourage and facilitate more socialization. Enroll them in day programs, or find fun group outdoor activities this summer. Remember that socialization means a greater sense of social obligation and heightened responsibility toward others, creating a sense of purpose and something to look forward to. It makes everyone’s life better.
3. I will encourage mind-opening cultural activities. The Bay Area, especially San Francisco, has world-renowned art and history museums with rotating exhibits that reward repeat visits. Concerts, plays, and movies also not only provide a new experience, but give you more to talk about, encouraging a creative mind. Don’t be limited to the famous spots either. Check out the Camera Obscura and Holograph Museum in Ocean Beach, or maybe the Beethoven Center in San Jose. Or make a weekend of it and head to the di Rosa Winery in Napa, which has 200 pieces of art spread over 20 acres. Outdoors and mind-opening. It’s the best of both worlds.
4. I will force us both to try new things. You know your favorite restaurant? You go there often because it’s comfortable. Maybe the place next door has gotten great reviews, but you just don’t know, right? We all do it. We forget to try new things because we don’t feel like it’s worth the risk. As a caregiver, this is the kind of mentality you need to avoid. Now, towards the end of life, is exactly when people should try new things. They may love it, and they may not. Either way, it creates a memory, and that keeps the brain active, working to tie together new smells, sights, and sounds. More activity in the brain can help fight mental illness and decline. So try something new—anything from wall-climbing to volunteering.
5. I will avoid letting routine rule. Don’t confuse this with trying new things. Routine has its benefits for older adults, giving them structure and purpose, but routines can become dangerous if not continually evaluated. If your loved one has a pattern, seven days a week, of breakfast, followed by an hour of TV, then a walk around the block before lunch and a nap, you’re both in a rut. Days will blend together. You can’t try something new and wild every day, but you can break up routines a couple times a week. Depending on their level of activity and interest, this can even mean a fulfilling job.
6. I will spend more time outside. Spending time in nature is calming. Fresh air helps to strengthen the lungs and relax the mind. And the outdoors are always different, always changing. The people walking by are never static. Stores change their displays. Leaves are born and bloom and fall—that fella who said you can’t step in the same river twice was onto something. There are great spots in the Bay Area for outdoor activities that are both relaxing and reinvigorating. You can even encourage new hobbies, like birdwatching, that create a purpose to being outdoors.
7. I will listen to what they really want. Never forget that the older adult for whom you are caregiving has moral and emotional agency. While not everything they may want to do is feasible, depending on time, money, and physical abilities, you should listen seriously to their ideas, and consider the possibilities. This means working to help them find and engage in new hobbies, never dismissing an idea out of hand. You’ll both be much happier that way. Even if it doesn’t work out, the act of planning a trip, a meal, or an experience together can be bonding and exciting in and of itself.
8. I won’t be afraid to voice what I need. Remember that this is your life as well. You can, and should, encourage activities that will make you happy and excite you. There may be sacrifices to be made, but don’t neglect yourself or your needs. It isn’t being selfish; it’s being human. And, just as importantly, it will help prevent caregiver burnout, which makes it the best thing you can do for your loved one, as well.
9. I will make medical visits an excuse for a day on the town. Going to the doctor is never fun, and while technological advances make home care more viable, there will still have to be office visits. But that doesn’t have to be the focus of the whole day. If it’s possible, use a doctor visit as an excuse to go somewhere nearby, especially a quirky place you’ve never been. Not only are you already out, but this means the drudgery of the doctor’s office won’t become the memory of the day.
10. I will stoke a sense of adventure. We always wake up on January 1st with an air of determination to start a new year right—we look at it as an adventure. And we can keep that attitude as winter turns to spring, to summer, to fall. Try to ignite that sense of purpose every day. Use that mentality to create a quest for adventure in you and in the older adult in your life. Give each day space for possibility.
Of course, we know that not every day is going to be worthy of our memories. There will be days where one or both of you just doesn’t feel up to a grand adventure, or even a stroll in a new park. You’ll be sick, or busy, or maybe just kind of irritated. That happens, and that’s ok.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Plan activities for seniors that can fill up the days when you’re feeling up to it. Work together—the burden isn’t entirely on you. Ask friends for ideas. Ask family members what they think. Go on sites that plan activities for older adults.
One of the saddest parts of aging is that too often we feel circumscribed and narrowed. Society often reinforces that. The maze of life crumbles into a single path. As a loving caregiver, you can add more turns, more options, and more possibilities back into life. That’s the best resolution for a great year.
At Institute on Aging, we know that the challenges caregivers face can seem overwhelming. We’re here to help. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs.