People rely on routine to give life structure. The typical routine for a working adult involves showering, drinking coffee, going to the office, checking e-mail, lunch and meetings. After work, most people have dinner and unwind in the evening with a cocktail, some television or reading. Regular exercise, hobbies, volunteer work and socializing are also fit into many working adults’ lives.

Such habits and rituals that become part of our daily routine offer comfort when life throws us a curveball. The car needing repairs, spraining an ankle or having to shop for the holidays are all examples of minor disruptions to established routines. As we age, there are frequently more significant disruptions to our routine such as a major health concern. The ritual of driving to the office, savoring a cup of coffee or watching that evening sitcom can comfort us in the face of minor and even major life changes.

Many of us imagine retirement being a glorious time free of schedules. Time will be fluid and we can stop keeping a calendar or watching the clock. Most of us enjoy and very much look forward to vacations and retirement may be envisioned as an endless one. But can vacation time really be as enjoyable if there is no routine to break from? Frequently it’s not, and this is why some seniors report retirement being an unexpectedly lackluster period filled with uncertainty when they don’t have a plan.

Studies indicate retirees are much happier and more satisfied when some semblance of routine or schedule is part of their new lives. Not having something on the calendar is a recipe for boredom, loneliness and even feelings of worthlessness. While enjoying some downtime is fine, having a plan to fill at least some of the calendar is advised by many aging experts. Seniors who retire with a specific plan to travel, babysit grandchildren, golf a few days a week or volunteer at the animal shelter report more satisfaction with their retirement years.

Older women retirees who have not worked outside the home, functioning in their younger years as stay-at-home mothers and homemakers appear to struggle much less with the retirement period than their male counterparts. They have identified and participated in fulfilling activities inside and outside the home for many years before retirement began. This can create additional stress in the home when the husband retires without a plan and sees his wife enjoying her book club, lunch with friends, yoga and gardening in the backyard. Many older wives complain that their retirement satisfaction declines when their husbands retire because they worry about them being bored and report they “get in the way.”

Meaningful activity is key to keeping an older retiree vital and independent. But such activity is perhaps even more important when an older adult becomes less independent. When a senior becomes disabled or experiences health or cognitive declines, it is important to assess the senior’s calendar to ensure that he or she is participating in structured enjoyable activities as part of the treatment plan.

Therapeutic activities for seniors with disabilities, cognitive conditions or other health concerns should focus on maximizing the skills and abilities they still possess. Ideally, these activities will focus on stimulating the senses, increasing socialization, decreasing isolation and improving any skills and abilities that can be rehabilitated. They should also be based on interests and pursuits the individual has found enjoyable when he or she was healthier.

Enter any nursing home, assisted living, adult day care center, or senior center and you will likely see a game of bingo in action. It is practically unheard of to find a social program catered to seniors not offering bingo. While bingo falls into a certain negative senior stereotype along with shuffleboard, it continues to be one of the most popular activities in many senior living communities for good reason. Bingo can actually be very beneficial. It stimulates three senses: hearing (calling numbers and letters), sight and touch (looking at and touching the cards). It also offers socialization, cognitive stimulation and promotes hand-eye coordination.

In addition to traditional activities like bingo, a diverse array of activities should be offered to less independent seniors. As with retired seniors living at home, older adults in nursing homes and assisted living communities still crave structure and routine in order to feel productive. If the person previously enjoyed book club but is struggling with vision, an audiobook may be a good option. If a person previously enjoyed marathon running but is struggling with gait, perhaps regular nature walks with family members or other residents could be incorporated into his schedule.

While family caregivers at home don’t have the luxury of an activities staff planning therapeutic programs for their loved ones, it is still essential to apply these principles when caring for an older loved one at home. Family members providing care at home focus on personal care, medication management, and getting the senior to medical appointments. While it may occur to them that their loved one’s outlook and health could potentially be improved with meaningful activities, they may not be sure how to integrate them into an already overwhelming schedule.

Here are 3 tips to help family members plan therapeutic activities for older loved ones at home:

Integrate hobbies and pursuits the senior has always enjoyed. If a senior has historically enjoyed going to the movies, the caregiver could borrow movies for free from the local library. If the senior is still mobile going out to a movie may still be an option.

Consider what the senior’s life was like before he became less independent. If the senior was a homemaker and would like to still help out around the house, the caregiver might want to consider what tasks would be safe for her to do based on her condition. For example folding laundry might be a better choice than baking cookies for a woman with advanced dementia.

Incorporate the senior’s spirtitual and religious beliefs. The caregiver might be able to consider integrating spiritual beliefs into the senior’s home routine in the following ways: Bible reading, Rosary prayers, listening to hymns on the ipod or CD player.

Routine and structure in our lives provides consistency at all stages of aging, whether the senior is a vibrant retiree or someone who is requiring significant care. During the aging process it is important to have a plan that promotes feelings of contentment and to reassess that plan as health issues arise.

Mature market expert and gerontologist Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C.
Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP is a speaker and consultant on age diversity, older customers, caregiving & dementia. She is the President of Jenerations Health Education & an Instructor at Johns Hopkins University. For more information please visit www.jenerationshealth.com.

Please click here to download a photo of Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C.