How to Make Life Meaningful for Aging Parents


Published: 05/03/2012

by Michelle Seitzer



Pick up her meds. Get him to the doctor. Make sure she has fresh milk and eggs in the fridge and bread in the pantry. As caregivers, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day stuff and forget about life in between the caregiving.


Caring for parents with a debilitating illness or disease is so time-consuming and emotionally draining that you may feel you have little to give after their basic personal care needs are met. Some days it is a challenge just to get Dad showered, shaved, fed, and comfortable. Finding time or energy to do something other than hand him the TV remote seems to be less of a priority, all things considered.


But did you realize that helping your parents stay engaged not only makes their life more meaningful but enhances yours too? As a caregiver, you spend lots of effort and time in giving; why not seek ways to partake in a little receiving (especially the kind that benefits both parties)?


Many articles and anecdotes about activity directors in senior care settings speak to the importance of life histories as the best source for developing and fostering meaningful activities. As the caregiver and child, you have the advantage of immediate access to this information. You may even learn something new about your parents in the process! Ask and consider the following to determine what activities -- and even what television programs -- would be of interest:


  1. What were their jobs?
  2. What were/are their hobbies?
  3. What are their interests?
  4. Do they enjoy socializing with others, or do they prefer to be alone (i.e. reading a book in solitude)?
  5. What music do they enjoy?
  6. Do they like to work with their hands?
  7. Do they enjoy board games or cards?
  8. Did they have a garden?
  9. Do they enjoy writing letters?
  10. Do they like to tinker with projects? Sort or organize items?


Some adjustments will be necessary based on your parents’ health status. Mom may enjoy knitting and Papa might love to tinker, but their hands may be too weak or arthritic to keep pace or do so without pain. The large backyard garden may be more than she can manage, but a small window box or self-contained herb garden is totally doable.

There are a number of card games you could play together and others that Dad can play on his own (especially if he has a smartphone or iPad). Gaming systems like the Wii might also be an option if a parent is bed-bound but still wants to engage in a physical activity.


Mom might not be able to do all the steps involved in baking Christmas cookies, but that doesn’t mean she should be excluded from this time-honored tradition in your family. Do the things she cannot (shop for items, lift the heavy bags of sugar and flour, shaping and rolling out the dough) but allow her to do what she is able (cut out dough, decorate cookies, place them in tins).


In some cases, a parent’s illness severely limits the level of activity or engagement (or they may be approaching the end of life). You can still create an environment that is positive and life-enhancing, as opposed to just letting the TV play on and on: bring in fresh flowers, turn on soothing music they enjoy, provide soft blankets. If you have a pet that is calm and cuddly, perhaps allow the cat or dog to lay in bed with your parent. An animal’s presence can be very comforting.


Brush your mom’s hair. Dab on some of her favorite perfume. Give her a hand massage, or just hold your Dad’s hand for a while. Physical contact and non-verbal communication is also vital and meaningful, especially as a loved one nears death.


Reminiscing can be soothing too. Talk about favorite summer vacations or holiday celebrations. Open the windows and let the sun shine in. Watch the sunset. Place a birdfeeder outside his bedroom window so he can watch the activity from his bed.


There is nothing wrong with handing him the television remote if that’s what he wants. Just remember, there is so much more to life -- and caregiving -- than “the basics.”