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8 Ways to Help Older Adults Stay Active and Engaged

Staying active through outside services:

A variety of reasonably priced programs and services can help older adults become more active and engaged. Making a good match for them depends largely on their condition and needs.

Boredom is a common complaint of older adults whose health limits their ability to be active or who have become isolated. And it's not just a minor issue -- boredom affects mental and physical health and can lead to depression.

Here are eight ideas for combating boredom and isolation, all with a track record of success for older adults. To find the best fit before you jump in, get as much input as you can about which options might be appealing to the individuals you're caring for.

1. Adult day programs or daycare

It can be hard to get past the name -- it sounds like childcare, and some older adults find it stigmatizing -- but many adult day programs offer fabulous opportunities for people of all abilities.

Basically small-scale health and social clubs for retirees, adult day programs usually include exercise classes, field trips and outings, support groups, and nutritious meals. Most are run by, and housed at, nonprofit senior centers or senior organizations that charge on a sliding scale.

Typically, an older adult stays for the day or part of the day. If she has dementia or Alzheimer's, you can find programs tailored to her unique needs.

How to find it: Contact your local senior center, listed in the phone directory or online. Or try using the's Directory of Local Resources and Services.

A local Area Agency on Aging is a one-stop shop for senior information and referrals. (This agency is useful for tracking down many of the resources listed below, and can also be found at 800-677-1116.)

2. Senior centers

Until someone begins to age, it's easy to miss these amazing resources, which dot the country in communities large and small, rural and urban. Pretty much every town has at least one senior center. Often run by the city or county and funded largely by the federal government, senior centers offer a variety of services, from classes and support groups to day programs and meals.

Each senior center tends to have its own personality, based on the community it serves. Dances, outdoor hikes, political forums, volunteer placement services, health clinics, and therapeutic massage are just a few things you might find. Check with a local senior center to learn what's available, but expect to find programs for older adults of all ability levels. Fees are usually on a sliding scale.

How to find it: Senior centers are listed in the phone directory or online. Be sure to use the local town or neighborhood as a keyword. Or try getting in touch with your local Area Agency on Aging.

Keeping engaged by bringing the outside world in

3. Meals on Wheels

For more than 50 years, Meals on Wheels' primary mission has been to deliver nutritious food to the homes of older adults and people with disabilities. But this national nonprofit service offers far more than just a warm meal.

For many older people who've become isolated, Meals on Wheels also provides a regular social contact, as recipients get up to chat with a friendly visitor. And while Meals on Wheels doesn't officially take responsibility for the people it serves beyond delivering meals, volunteers often bond with their clients and informally look out for them.

Local Meals on Wheels programs are usually run by senior centers or other community organizations. While many people think this service is only for those who are ill or have a low income, older adults and disabled people of all income levels enjoy the service, paying as they can afford.

How to find it: Meals on Wheels has chapters around the county. Go to the Meals on Wheels website and enter your zip code to find a local program. Or contact a local senior center, listed in the phone directory or online.

4. In-home caregiver or companion

Whether stopping by to help older adults with tasks such as dressing or bathing, or for casual companionship (like playing a game of hearts or sharing a movie), in-home caregivers can help older adults beat isolation and boredom.

There are in-home caregivers for every level of need, from companionship to clinical nursing. Some people use more than one type of caregiver, depending on their situation.

The key to making in-home caregiving work is balancing older adults' needs with their finances. Caregivers are usually paid by the hour, and it can become expensive. The greater the skill set required, the higher the hourly salary.

For medical assistance, older adults may be eligible for some in-home care funding from Medicare, Medicaid, or health or long-term disability insurance. Or, they may need to cover the entire cost of companion care.

How to find it: In-home caregivers can be hired independently or through an agency. Agencies are listed in the telephone directory or online (search using your location as a keyword).

Independent caregivers often advertise in newspaper or online classified ads (be sure to check their references carefully). Ask friends, senior centers, churches, and hospitals for referrals, and try using the Eldercare Locator.

How Pets Help Seniors

5. Get a pet

They're not for everyone, but dogs or cats, even birds, fish, or hamsters, can make marvelous friends. Years of research solidly backs up the benefits of animal companionship for older adults, both for mental and physical health. Many nursing homes and assisted living facilities allow pets for this very reason.

First, make sure a pet is something the person in your care really wants and can handle. For example, is she up to taking a dog out two or three times a day? Would she be better off with an animal that doesn't require daily outdoor exercise?

How to find it: One of the best places to find a pet -- and a way to help animals in need of homes -- is through the local animal shelter. Some have special adoption programs for seniors.

To find a shelter and learn more about pet adoption, check these nonprofits: the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the Humane Society, Pets 911, and Pets for the Elderly.

6. Peer Counseling

Sometimes, the best person to talk to about personal or emotional issues is a peer, someone who can relate to your particular stage of life. Senior Peer Counseling, a volunteer program offered nationally, is based on this premise.

Specially trained counselors are matched with older adult clients, visiting them in their home, at a senior center, in a restaurant or favorite meeting spot, or by phone. Senior peer counseling programs are run by many senior centers and nonprofit organizations.

How to find it: Senior centers are listed in the phone directory, or try using the Eldercare Locator.

7. Jobs, volunteering, and education

Older adults' ability to work, volunteer, or take educational courses depends, of course, on their condition and desires. But a surprising number of these options are available for seniors of varying ability levels.

Some programs are offered by the federal government, like the Peace Corps program for older volunteers or the Senior Corp, a community service program for older Americans. Many others are offered by local government agencies and nonprofits.

Volunteering in a classroom, serving in a soup kitchen, taking a history class via the TV or computer, or knitting a warm scarf for a needy child might be ways in which an older adult would enjoy reconnecting with the world.

How to find it: An excellent referral source is the federal government's Education, Jobs, and Volunteerism webpage for seniors. Also check with a local senior centers and community colleges, and try using the Eldercare Locator.

How Senior Programs Can Keep Your Loved One Active

8. Community-based nonprofits

Neighborhood and community nonprofits around the country provide an array of programs for older adults. Volunteer visitor and errand-running programs, telephone well-being checks, and visiting pets (yes, the pets visit the seniors) are just some of the available services. Programs tend to spring up to meet the needs of their community, and many offer their services on a sliding scale.

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