Do you ever wonder what it takes to keep seniors engaged? In this post, I’ll share with you what has worked for me based on my personal encounters with my senior clients.

The other day, a friend admitted to me that she doesn’t know how to maintain her 82-year-old mom’s attention during her visits with her at the nursing home. Her once animated and talkative mom was just recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and isn’t necessarily thrilled about it. According to this friend, keeping her mom’s interest has become a major challenge ever since the diagnosis.

First off, please don’t be quick to judge this lady. This is a very legitimate question that I think most of us face, but aren’t able to articulate or express for fear of being judged. We all long to connect on a deeper level with our elderly loved ones but somehow, in one way or the other, roadblocks in the form of an illness, memory loss, confusion, denial, fear, financial insecurities, etc. prevent us from doing so. What we probably don’t realize is that we may not only be the ones feeling this way, but our loved ones may just as well be in the same boat.

Sensing her frustration, I offered her valuable learnings and practical tips that I have gained in my years of being a companion for seniors. Here they are:

The Cardinal Rule: Respect the way they feel.


Being with older adults on a daily basis has made me realize that the worst fear that they can ever find themselves faced with is the threat of losing their independence. If you come to think of it, the prospect of losing control over their own affairs and becoming a burden to their loved ones is hard enough as it is, and a diagnosis may be the last nail that will seal the coffin. This is not necessarily something anyone—not even the most optimistic person—would welcome with open arms. The secret is to be sensitive to both verbal and non-verbal cues. These could come in many different forms: grumpiness, avoidance in eye contact, stubbornness, or even just plain withdrawal. Once you identify these cues, then the best thing to do is to allow them space. Most likely, they need time to process things. Let them know that you are there for them until they are ready. No need for an elaborate speech; a simple hug or even a hand squeeze will communicate this message. Hopefully, they’ll come around.

Avoid elderspeak.


Nothing can be more degrading for an elderly person than to be spoken to like a child. Most caregivers, in their desire to communicate effectively with older people, deliberately speak louder and slower, as if they’re talking to a toddler. Some even go to the extent of addressing them in terms of endearment that really, when you come to think of it, sounds really ingenuous. This is more commonly observable in an assisted living facility setting. It makes me cringe whenever I see this. The truth of the matter is that seniors do not, I repeat: DO NOT, appreciate this. AT ALL. According to them, it is both insulting and condescending. Again, this goes back to my cardinal rule: respect the way they feel. If you want to keep a senior engaged, ask yourself how it would make you feel if someone just suddenly starts talking to you that way. Chances are you won’t like it, so what would make them any different?

Give them the Center Stage.


Gently encourage them to talk about something they’re very familiar with and show genuine interest in what they have to say. One of the handiest “tools” I’ve used is a photo album. If you’re dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, look for the oldest pictures you can find in the album; otherwise, you can pick whichever picture you fancy in the album. I had a client who, despite being in the advanced stages of her dementia, was able to tell me in vivid detail all about her childhood. She beamed with pride every time she shared her stories and I enjoyed every bit of it. Most of the time, especially for dementia patients, they are able to talk more about the “old” past than the recent past. If they start talking about things like their first kiss or about friends long gone, let them. Better yet, ask questions. Meet them wherever they are at the moment. This will make them feel good about themselves and somehow draw them out of their shell. Before you know it, you have a very enthusiastic story-telling machine.

Sing with them.


When I first started visiting my clients, I quickly discovered that not all of them are necessarily in the mood to actively participate in a conversation. I have found that singing a song (even if you can’t really carry a tune) or even humming a tune familiar to them does wonders in trying to keep seniors engaged with you. Somehow, music awakens the hidden singer in them. If you don’t know how to sing, play an old song that they might recognize and see how they react to it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how a client’s face lights up upon hearing a song from their younger years, although I must (proudly) admit that I have found myself having a captive audience in an impromptu concert. And when this happens, I know that my efforts in learning old songs are paying off.

Start a project that’s easy enough for them.


Set them up for success! Think of something that you can do together that will give them something to be proud of. This is a very effective tool in combating elderly depression. If they are still able, help them put loose pictures in a photo album. It doesn’t have to be an expensive activity; you can use plain paper to tape the pictures on and a plastic sleeve to protect them. To make this activity fun for them, let them tell you stories about the pictures while you’re at it. For seniors who have problems with memory, a fun activity would be to sort beads according to colour or shape. Let your imagination run wild when thinking of projects to do. Let them take credit for the outcome so that they feel good about themselves.

Offer to go for a walk with them.


If your senior loved one is able, offer to go for a walk with them. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my clients happen during our walks together. Whenever possible, we go to the hiking trails (that are of course senior-friendly), the park, or even sit by the water. Because the mood is relaxed and the atmosphere is non-threatening, I find that they are more open to expressing their thoughts and feelings which is key to having meaningful conversations. It’s almost like therapy for them. Among the many benefits of walking are that it helps strengthen and loosen tight muscles, improve mood, helps maintain a healthy weight, etc. If you can get your loved one to go for a walk with you, not only will they benefit from it, but you will, too! It’s a win-win situation.

Employ the power of touch.


Like many of us, older adults enjoy a quiet time once in a while. It could be for any reason: they could just be in a pensive mood; they could be feeling under the weather (in which case you should be wary of non-verbal cues), or it could be anything! When this happens, don’t take it personally. I can assure you, this. is. common. Depending on the mood they are in at the moment, I find that just sitting beside them and just holding their hand is sometimes more appreciated than an actual conversation. Touch can heal, soothe, communicate love and kindness, and strengthen the connection between two people. Sometimes I go one step further and give them a hand massage.  Always, I see a smile slowly spread across the face whenever I share a special moment like this with any of my clients. And the good news is that not only do they benefit from this, but I do, too!

Just respect their need to be quiet.


But what if they’re not in the mood for a touch nor a conversation, you might ask. Well, this is when you should use your better judgment. It requires a great deal of sensitivity when dealing with our elderly loved ones. You will agree that we all have our own challenges to deal with at whatever stage we are in life. When you come to think of it, haven’t you had days when you wished people would just leave you alone? If you find your loved one in one of these moods, know that you don’t have to do or say anything “to make them feel better.” Most of the time, your silent presence is appreciated in itself. Go find something else to do and just check in on them from time to time.  Respecting their need to be quiet will not only land you in their good book but will also save you from stressing yourself over how you can be of help. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.