Medically Approved

37 ways to help the older adults in your life stay healthy

Grandmother and granddaughter playing piano

Whether you live down the road or across the country, these ideas can help you support and feel connected to your loved ones. 

Debbie Koenig

By Debbie Koenig

This year has been hard on everyone, but especially older adults. Your goal now: Help your loved ones remain in their home and enjoy life to the fullest. You want to help them feel capable, comfortable and content. And that might not look the way you expect.

“It starts with a relationship,” says Cheryl Woodson, MD. She’s an expert in geriatric medicine and author of To Survive Caregiving. “We can’t just show up and be involved in the last few years of their lives. It’s about being involved all the time and asking them what they want.”

So how well do you really know your older family members? After all, your grandfather is more than just the man who pulled a quarter out of your ear growing up. Find out who he really is and you’ll be better able to help him age with confidence.

Once you have a sense of what your loved one might prefer, these ideas will get you started.

Get them moving

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that older adults who are generally healthy move their bodies for at least 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. It also suggests adding muscle-strengthening activities 2 days a week. Read about the benefits of exercise here.

Helping your friend or relative find ways to be active that they enjoy can make a big difference in their quality of life. Here are some ways:

  • Help them adapt familiar activities. Somebody who was never physically active probably won’t suddenly want to run a marathon. But they could have some activity they used to do. The key is to help them find ways to do it now. “Don’t make it a step down,” says Dr. Woodson. “It should be, ‘Why don’t we try it this way?’” For example, are bad knees making yoga impossible? Introduce them to chair yoga.
  • If your loved one is mobile, go for walks together in safe areas. In addition to the physical activity, it will give you time to talk and get to know each other.
  • If they have a favorite TV show, watch with them — but stand up and march while you do, gradually increasing the amount of time you both spend on your feet.
  • Show them how to use resistance bands, which are easier to manage than dumbbells. “Building muscle is important to reduce the risk of falling,” says Dr. Woodson.

Keep their interests alive

Here’s where that time you spent getting to know each other will really pay off. The more ways you can help them keep doing the things they love, the better. (If they love saving money, show them how Optum Perks can help.)

  • If Grandma never left home without perfectly coiffed hair, take her to the hairdresser regularly.
  • For movie buffs, seek out a theater with special showings for older adults. Ticket prices are low, and you can see first-run films and classics. Maybe you’ll discover a new favorite.
  • Take a sports fan to the ballgame. Take a music fan to the philharmonic.
  • Help an avid gardener weed and care for flower beds.
  • If your loved one is missing a regular bridge game, help him or her find an online or in-person league. Or learn the rules yourself and join in — there are 2-player variations.
  • For someone who’s artistic, find a “paint and sip” studio. No skill is required, so even if you haven’t touched a paintbrush since elementary school, you’ll be able to participate, too.
  • Cook favorite family recipes together. You’ll learn something, and then you’ll get to dig in, too.

Engage their brains

Dr. Woodson isn’t a fan of brain-teasing games as a strategy for boosting cognitive function. “The brain is not a muscle,” she says. “Once the brain is fully developed, exercises don’t make it stronger — it makes you better at sudoku.” But that doesn’t mean games are off the table. The goal is to create opportunities for older people to interact with others and keep learning new things.

  • Help your loved ones choose something they want to learn about. “Find activities they enjoy that keep them engaged, learning and communicating,” says Dr. Woodson.
  • Show them how to get on the internet (if they don’t know already) and find social groups. For instance, AARP has a virtual community center with free online events and classes (and many don’t require membership).
  • Make sure the technology works for them. “There are Chromebooks that aren’t complicated and not all that expensive,” says Dr. Woodson. “You can set them up and show them how to use it.” Then you can play, say, mahjong over the device.
  • If they’re already computer-savvy and like to try new things, introduce them to video games. Choose one you can play together remotely, such as Minecraft.
  • Another way to keep older adults engaged: Have them do the teaching. Help them find a homework hotline to volunteer with, or let them read to the children in the family. Or, if mom crochets and you’ve always wanted to learn, now’s the time to ask for lessons.

Help them stay safe

As people get older and frailer, the home they’ve lived in for decades can become hazardous. Plus, more than 9 in 10 older adults take medication that could increase their risk of falling.

According to the National Institute on Aging, a few simple changes can help reduce the risk.

  • Vision troubles come with age, which means shadows can be dangerous. Make sure the home is brightly lit, even in the corners. Add task lighting in spaces where people cook, read or do anything that requires a clear view. Install nightlights throughout the home.
  • Throw rugs are a tripping hazard. Remove them to lower the risk of falls. Also important: Make sure carpets are attached to the floor.
  • In the kitchen and bathroom, put down no-slip strips or nonskid mats anywhere that typically gets wet.
  • Install grab bars near toilets and in the tub or shower.
  • Clutter can be dangerous, too. Spend some time helping your friend or relative clear out and get organized. Just imagine the recollections this could inspire.
  • Understanding the difference between objects — called spatial awareness — can be hard for older adults. So make sure the edges of things are clearly marked. Put fluorescent tape on the edge of each stair, suggests Dr. Woodson.

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Make sure they eat well

Many people lose their appetite as they age, but older adults need nourishment to stay healthy. “The nutrition piece can be very hard,” says Dr. Woodson. “A lot of times there are restrictions on what people can eat because of blood pressure or blood sugar. And in this country, everything has too much salt and too much sugar. Our taste buds have been conditioned to need it.” But who wants to eat bland food?

  • Ask them what they want to eat. “We get very paternalistic about our parents and grandparents, and we have no right to do that,” says Dr. Woodson. Taking away their ability to choose their own food can lead to them refusing to eat.
  • Stock up the spice rack and experiment together. Make your own spice blends, or buy ready-made.
  • Get curious. “Talk about what his or her mother used to cook, and get back into the culture where they came from,” Dr. Woodson suggests. “It could spark some good stories, and it may also get them more interested in eating.”
  • For those who are reluctant to eat, Dr. Woodson recommends having fun with smoothies. Add egg whites or protein powder for a nutrition boost. Her favorite combo: frozen pineapple, egg whites or protein powder, coconut milk, almonds and imitation rum flavor or rum extract (some of these contain alcohol), all blended until smooth. It’s a nutritious low-alcohol or alcohol-free piña colada.
  • Do the same thing on the savory side with pureed soups. Make them richer with heavy cream or olive oil.
  • If they’re really reluctant, approach this from a food-as-medicine angle. “Just like they take their blood pressure medicine at a certain time, schedule a 10 o’clock feeding or an afternoon feeding,” says Dr. Woodson.
  • Add nutrient- and calorie-dense foods such as avocado, nut butters, full-fat yogurt and olive oil to the menu. They’ll need to eat only a little bit to get the benefit.
  • If it’s physically difficult for them to hold a utensil, offer more finger foods.
  • Eat together. The social aspect of sharing a meal can encourage a reluctant eater.

Swallowing pills can also be tricky for many people, including those who have had a stroke. Here are 4 tricks to help the medicine go down.

Stay connected from a distance

Just because you don’t live nearby doesn’t mean you can’t show your love and support. But again, really getting to know your loved one matters. “It takes a village to care for older adults, too,” says Dr. Woodson. “You need to know who the people are in their life, and they need to know you.”

  • If your loved one belongs to a house of worship, reach out to the clergy there. “If she’s still going to church, they’ll know if she’s dressed well, and they’ll let you know if there’s a problem,” she says. And there’s often a group that visits the sick and shut-ins, should you need it.
  • Find out if your older friend or relative belongs to any organizations and contact the local chapter. They also can give you a heads-up if things aren’t going well or check in if your loved one is not answering the phone.
  • If you can, introduce yourself to your loved one’s neighbors. That contact can be especially valuable in case of emergency.
  • Ask your elder if they’ll consent to conference calls with their doctors. That way you can stay up to date on their health care — and the doctor will know you if something happens.
  • Compile a list of elder resources in your loved one’s neighborhood. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging can help you find local agencies. And Eldercare Locator can connect you to nearby services. It’s run by the U.S. Administration on Aging.
  • Above all, stay in touch. Communicate in whichever way the older adult in your life feels most comfortable — and do it regularly.

Another way to support your loved ones: Download the Optum Perks app to find prescription coupons for up to 80% off their medications and share them directly via the app. Is paper more their style? Print them out a prescription discount card to use at their local pharmacy.

Additional sources
Physical activity for older adults: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
How to help older adults age in place: National Institute on Aging