Just because you get older doesn’t mean you give up on life. In fact, it can be the best bit – when you get to forget about the stress of work or raising children. Instead, relishing activities and interests, you’ve always wanted to do. It’s a time for seniors to take up hobbies and get active.
Except, scour through most lists of activities for senior citizens, and you’ll find the same suggestions of puzzles, board games, and… bingo, of course. They’re brilliant ideas – but they’re not what we all dreamt of when picturing our retirement – chess fanatics aside.
We were hoping for something a little more… well, meaningful. Something that would provide purpose in our older age – that would give a kick in our step and a reason to get up in the morning.
It’s more than just keeping active.
Finding meaning in our lives as we age is critical to our health, mental wellbeing, and overall vitality. The renowned author and philosopher Viktor Frankl put it best: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how'”.
Science is now backing him up. A growing body of evidence highlights the importance of meaningful activities for seniors. From the devastating effects of loneliness to the value of keeping fit, the benefits of activities for seniors are seemingly endless.
In this comprehensive guide, we will dive into the scientific research behind activities for senior citizens, exploring why it’s critical to stay active – physically and mentally – as we age.
We’ll cover five key areas relating to health and activities for seniors:
We’ve also got a few recommendations for meaningful activities for seniors. It’s not a comprehensive list – but it can spark your own ideas.
Staying Physically Active is Critical for Seniors
Physical activity is essential no matter your age. However, there’s a tendency for senior citizens to slow down as they age – the reverse is actually needed. It’s an ideal time to keep fit and active. Too many older people are chronically physically inactive, and it’s damaging their quality of life.
It’s an ongoing problem.
A 2016 study revealed that 28% of US adults 50 years old and greater were physically inactive – around 31 million adults. According to the CDC, 4 in 5 of the costliest chronic conditions among those over 50 could be prevented or managed with physical activity.
Most of us know the value of exercise. We know that physical activity reduces the risk of premature death and helps boost our moods. Being fit and active means that we can make the most of our lives.
In fact, the sheer quantity of studies supports the considerable role of physical activity in older people. Let’s recap the headlines:
- Exercise reduces the risk of falls by 21%, — in particular, balance activities for seniors.
- Physical activity is protective against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
- Exercise improves people’s quality of life, wellbeing and mental health.
- Staying active is associated with a delay in the onset of dementia.
- Strength training can improve physical performance and positively affect activities of daily living (helping maintain independence).
It’s really remarkable how effective exercise is. If it were a medication, everyone would be clamoring for their doctors to prescribe it. Instead, a quarter of us are neglecting the basics. Indeed, when we think of traditional activities for seniors, like bridge or bingo, they often emphasize physical inactivity.
That needs to change!
So how much physical exercise should seniors get?
According to the CDC, adults aged 65 and older need:
- At least 150 minutes a week(for example, 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week) of moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking. Or they need 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity such as hiking, jogging, or running.
- At least 2 days a weekof activities that strengthen muscles.
- Activities to improve balancesuch as standing on one foot about 3 days a week.
Of course, some people can’t do balance activities and struggle with walking. You can tailor activities for senior citizens to accommodate all disabilities and abilities. Chair exercises, for example, are a brilliant way to strengthen muscles and increase mobility.
It’s never too late to start exercising!
Activities For Seniors Boost Brain Power
Brain training games – be it puzzles, board games, trivia, and more – are often lauded for their brain-boosting benefits. Search for “brain activities for senior citizens”, and you’ll find endless results from chess to sudoku. There are even dedicated apps that supposedly boost memory, bolster attention, and keep your mind sharp and agile in old age.
Is it true? Or are these claims a little too bold?
Most doctors will tell you all you need to do to stay mentally fit is to keep active, eat healthily, and get a good night’s sleep. But we all know from personal experience that a lack of cognitive stimulation often leads to sloppy and loose thinking. We become muddled.
A colossal study of more than 2,800 people aged 65 and over sought to test if different kinds of brain training really did improve mental abilities. Called the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, it’s the most often cited example of the benefits of brain stimulation.
What were the results?
After completing the trial, all groups of participants – memory, reasoning, and speed-of-processing – reported better results than at baseline. The brain training had worked! What was more impressive, however, were the later results. A decade on – and with an average age of 82 –, 73.6% of reasoning-trained participants were still better than their pre-trial baseline compared to a control group. A similar result was also seen for the speed training group.
Participants in all groups even reported less difficulty performing everyday tasks. Although, as co-author Jonathan W. King cautions:
“The self-reported improvements in daily function are interesting, but we do not yet know whether they would truly allow older people to live independently longer; if they did, even a small effect would be important, not only for the older adults, but also for family members and others providing care.”
It’s not hard to call these findings game-changing. The brain isn’t a muscle, but it behaves like one. Finding meaningful activities for seniors means working that mental muscle.
Mental Health is Dependent on an Active Life
Anyone who’s experienced mental health problems knows how the days stretch out in front of them. It is why mornings are often such a challenging time. “How am I going to fill my day?” seniors ask.
Little wonder that seniors’ mental health was identified as a major problem as early as the 1999 Surgeon General’s report on mental health.
It’s estimated that one in five over 55s experiences some kind of mental health concern. More upsetting, older men have the highest suicide risk of any age group. Men aged 85 years or older have a suicide rate of 45.23 per 100,000 compared to the overall rate of 11.01 per 100,000 across all ages.
The most common conditions include anxiety, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders (of which depression and bipolar disorder are the most prevalent).
It’s a frightening realization of what lies ahead – and what many senior citizens currently experience.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are numerous benefits to an active and healthy lifestyle. Depression, for example, is notable for slowing down people’s movements – even speech can be slurred. The brain is literally becoming sluggish. It makes sense, therefore, that the reverse is also true.
Exercise is positively associated with improved mental health. Physical activities for seniors are critical mood-boosting events.
In a monumental review of over 1,000 studies from the past thirty years, 89% found a statistically significant, positive association between physical activity/exercise and mental health. It’s the best evidence we have to date.
Part of the benefits relates to endorphins – feel-good chemicals – flooding your body during and after exercise. Another aspect is just general fitness – when we’re healthy, we’re generally happier, and we’ve got more energy to participate in activities. (One symptom of depression is low energy levels.)
However, a critically underappreciated benefit might come from better sleep. Indeed, it’s not just doing exercise that boosts sleep; we’ve all experienced feeling exhausted after a taxing day of mental work.
Sleep is a chronically underappreciated issue in seniors. It’s estimated that between 40 to 70% of older adults have chronic sleep issues – up to half are undiagnosed.
The Sleep Foundation recommends several sleep tips for seniors (focused on improving sleep hygiene). Maintaining a daily routine and regular exercise are among their core methods for better sleep – and, by extension, a better mood.
Indeed, good, high-quality sleep is related to greater wellbeing and life satisfaction. But the process also runs in reverse: when we are dissatisfied or depressed, we ruminate in bed. The principal mechanism is based around the amygdala – the brain’s emotional center. When it’s firing, we struggle to sleep. However, a lack of sleep lets the amygdala go haywire, leading to emotional instability.
Providing seniors with an active life and busy schedule boosts life satisfaction and reduces sleeping difficulties. There’s no worrying about what to do the next day – it’s ready and waiting. It’s a positive feedback cycle – less worry means better sleep means less worry.
The Devastating Effects of Loneliness
Humans are social creatures – that much should be obvious. We’re forever chatting, meeting up, hanging out, or “going for a coffee”. Yet, much of the social life we once enjoyed disappears as we get older. It’s even worse in our modern digital world.
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), more than one-third of adults age 45 and older feel lonely. Seniors fare slightly better – though one-quarter are still considered socially isolated. Meanwhile, Consumer Affairs reports that 28% of seniors live alone: just under 15 million people.
Despite this epidemic of loneliness, we hardly ever talk about its effects – we should. Loneliness is a killer. We think of loneliness as causing depression or anxiety; it affects our physical health too.
Here are some stats:
- Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of dementia by 50%
- Health risks linked to loneliness include:
- Heart disease risk rises by 29%
- Strokes risk increases by 32%
- Premature mortality is 26% higher
To put that in perspective – loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
We’ve seen a crisis in loneliness over the pandemic. Fearful of spreading the contagion, seniors have been left isolated. Activities for seniors, reliant on in-person meetings, have stopped, depriving older people of their social lifeline.
It may actually worsen their immune system.
In a 2021 study, stress, depression and loneliness were shown to impair the immune system’s response to vaccines. As the authors wrote:
“Robust evidence has demonstrated that stress, depression, loneliness, and poor health behaviors can impair the immune system’s response to vaccines, and this effect may be greatest in vulnerable groups such as the elderly.”
According to the National Institute on Aging, loneliness is linked to high blood pressure, obesity, cognitive decline, depression, and anxiety.
Through meaningful activities for senior citizens, we can turn the epidemic of loneliness around – and save lives. New digital activities for seniors provide a way to stay engaged and involved.
There are also several national organizations available to help lonely senior citizens:
- Area Agencies on Aging (AAA). It is a network of over 620 organizations throughout America, providing information and assistance to older adults and caregivers.
- Eldercare locator. It’s a free national service finding local resources for seniors for financial support, caregiving services, and more.
- National Council on Aging. It provides resources on aging and the value of increased social connectedness.
- National Institute on Aging (NIA). It generates information on social isolation and loneliness for senior citizens, caregivers, and health care operators.
Senior Citizens Need a Source of Meaning
Creating meaningful activities for seniors is, therefore, critical to being healthier, happier, more social, and sharper. But seniors aren’t robots – they’re people. And that means they need meaning, purpose.
Most of us find purpose in our work and our families and communities. But for many seniors – particularly towards the end of their lives – such purpose is lacking.
An active and rich life is the most obvious solution. In fact, a sense of purpose is critical to our mental wellbeing. The words of Viktor Frankl decades before are now scientific fact.
In a survey of adults aged 32 to 84 years old, a sense of purpose in life was associated with higher scores for memory, executive functioning, and overall cognition. An earlier study, meanwhile, of 189 very old people aged 85 to 103, found a purpose in life was protective against depression. At every stage of life, a sense of purpose is associated with greater life satisfaction and overall wellbeing – it’s no different for senior citizens.
The question isn’t is purpose essential – it’s how caregivers can deliver a sense of purpose to senior citizens?
A study of nursing home residents may provide a guiding light. Researchers in Norway interviewed senior citizens, asking about their experience of meaning and purpose in everyday life. Four key experiences were repeated again and again:
- Physical and mental wellbeing. Being fit and healthy and using stress reduction techniques to build mental resilience.
- Belonging and recognition. Feeling part of something bigger than ourselves; being valued and validated.
- Personally treasured activities. Doing activities that we enjoy and spending time with friends and family.
- Spiritual closeness and connectedness. Religious activities – more broadly, a sense of connectedness to all living things.
The psychologically minded might spot something akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We start with health, move on to our social lives, find fun in activities, and ultimately develop a sense of spiritual connectedness (self-actualization, in the words of Maslow) with the world.
These four pillars of purpose are found throughout Red Bag Activities’ monthly calendar. There’s religious reflection, physical exercise, hobbies and crafts, and even participation in national days – creating a feeling of camaraderie and community spirit.
Purpose doesn’t end with retirement. We all need it – young and old.
5 Ideas for Meaningful Activities for Seniors
1. Join a club
There’s a club for everything – literally. Book clubs. Movie clubs. Amateur radio clubs. Story slams. Computer classes. Car restoration societies.
Whatever seniors’ interests or hobbies, it’s critical to find like-minded people ready to discuss, advise, and share in the fun. Joining a club is a fantastic way to expand your social scene. All the while, they’re pursuing their favorite pastime – what’s not to like?
2. Try Red Bag Activities
Red Bag Activities is always coming up with new meaningful activities for senior citizens. In fact, we’ve got a whole monthly calendar planned with inventive and exciting things to do. Some days you’ll be getting up and active; others, you’ll be celebrating National Popcorn Day or World Poetry Day – with activities tailored around these engaging themes.
You’ll never wonder “What can I do?” again. It’s the perfect activity for people living independently, residents in adult family homes, and more. There’s truly something for everybody!
3. Board and card games
Board games are as popular as ever. They’ve actually had something of a resurgence in recent years. Sure, there are classics like Monopoly, Chess, and Scrabble (as well as your favorite card games like bridge or poker.) But there are also new board games coming out every year.
Board and card game clubs are popular activities for seniors. And if you bring along a board game you want to try, you’re sure to find willing players.
It’s a chance for seniors to meet others, keep their minds active, and develop their strategic skills. Nor do you need excellent mobility – you can play from a comfy chair.
4. Community theater
Discovering meaningful activities for seniors can mean stepping outside your comfort zone. But, if you’re willing to be bold, community theater is an incredible opportunity. Meet people young and old, all committed to putting on a fun and exciting show.
You don’t even have to act. From managing and creating props to running the lighting, there’s an opportunity for everyone to get involved.
The American Association of Community Theater keeps a directory of most community theater groups across the country.
Want to keep supple as you get older? There are few activities more invigorating than stretching and exercise. With a firm emphasis on balance, coordination, and relaxation, exercises routines such as Pilates, Barre, and Yoga are all about finding meaning through exercise.
These can also be tailored to your fitness level. Pilates, for example, is perfect for older adults because it does not have the impact on the body that other forms of exercise do and is not nearly as severe on the joints as most workouts are.
Check out local Pilates or Barre centers – many have specific classes geared toward seniors.
Meaningful Activities for Seniors are the Secret to a Better Life
Post-retirement isn’t a time for sitting back – it’s a time to seize life. Even the very old can find fun, laughter, happiness, and vitality in many of the available activities for seniors.
The benefits are staggering: improved fitness and a longer life, boosted brain power, greater mental health, less loneliness, and an overwhelming sense of meaning and purpose.
Here at Red Bag Activities, we channel these five benefits into our monthly package of activities. We ensure a healthy – and balanced – sprinkling of each throughout our events. They’re suitable for senior citizens of all ages and abilities.
We’re committed to an enriching and purposeful life. Because active people are healthier people.