6 Tips for Helping Seniors Live Independently


February 28, 2024

6 min read

Senior woman putting pearl necklace on while getting ready

One of the challenges of getting older is finding ways to maintain one’s independence, even as physical and cognitive abilities start to decline. For those of us with aging parents, we often have to balance giving them the support they require with helping them be as independent as possible – for as long as possible. This can not only enhance our parent’s mood and self-esteem, but it can also extend their physical and cognitive health by helping them maintain the ability to do daily tasks.

Here are six tips for helping your parent feel more independent.

1. Utilize their strengths

Rather than focus on your parent’s limitations, consider all the activities they’re still able to do, both physically and cognitively.

“Too often, we define getting older by all the negatives – the things we aren’t able to do anymore or the faculties that are in decline,” says Catherine Schneider, Director of Memory Care Operations and Programming at Atria Senior Living. “But if instead we start by recognizing all the things our parent can still do, we can view their situation in a more positive light.”

Schneider suggests highlighting the attributes that can improve as we age. For example: though we often think of post-retirement aging as a decline in cognitive ability, this is an oversimplification.

“Cognitive ability waxes and wanes over the course of our lives,” she says, “and certain abilities can actually increase in our senior years, such as crystallized intelligence, emotional intelligence and vocabulary. Finding ways to engage your parent’s cognitive strengths can help keep these abilities sharp.”

2. Help your parent find purpose

Older adults often feel a lack of purpose – they’ve retired from their careers, their kids are grown and they have more time to themselves without a clear sense of how they should spend it. This can lead to feelings of uselessness and depression, but there are many ways for seniors to renew their sense of purpose.

Mentoring provides an excellent opportunity for older adults to share their knowledge and experience in a way that can be socially and psychologically rewarding – friendships with younger people can reduce loneliness and boost mood and energy levels.

Similarly, volunteer work provides seniors with a chance to give back to their communities. They can also devote more time to hobbies and passion projects, or take classes to learn new skills like painting or playing an instrument. Having a mix of familiar and novel activities can stimulate an older adult’s brain and help them feel engaged and fulfilled.

3. Optimize their living environment

Your parent will feel more independent and autonomous if they can navigate their living space with minimal difficulty. Anything you can do to reduce the risk of falls, remove clutter and improve accessibility to everyday items will go a long way toward making them feel more comfortable.

“If the built environment around them is not safe or not conducive to their mental and physical state, they’re not going to feel confident moving around in it,” Schneider says. “It’s important to look for ways to improve their living space by doing things like putting handrails in the bathroom or getting rid of rugs that are easy to trip over.”

It can also help to incorporate technology into their living space to make things more convenient. For example, smart speakers make it easier to adjust the thermostat, hear a podcast or listen to music through voice commands.

4. Don’t offer to help unless they really need it

Continuing to do a variety of everyday tasks – even if they are challenging – is one way your parent can feel more independent.

“If they can still do things like prepare meals or get in and out of a car by themselves, don’t interfere or hover over them,” Schneider says. “It may be tempting to help them and get things done faster, but the longer they’re able to do these tasks on their own, the more independent they’ll feel.”

We tend to lose the skills we don’t use, so in addition to the confidence boost your parent will get from doing things themselves, they’ll also be able handle everyday tasks longer.

5. Offer choices

Older adults can lose their autonomy faster when their ability to make choices is restricted, so it’s important to include them in the decision-making process whenever possible. Rather than dictate their decisions or daily routines, make it a habit to offer your parent some options and let them choose what they want.

For example, instead of telling your parent you’ll be serving them eggs for breakfast, provide them with several options to choose from. This gives them a chance to exercise some control over the process. However, too many choices can be overwhelming, so rather than asking them, “What do you want for breakfast?” you could ask, “Would you like eggs, oatmeal or cereal for breakfast?”

6. Support your parent’s independence in assisted living – but don’t smother it

Moving to an assisted senior living community doesn’t mean your parent has to surrender their independence. In fact, the transition may provide them with opportunities to explore their independence in new ways.

“Assisted living communities offer classes, programs and social events that can help seniors be more engaged and autonomous than they might be on their own,” Schneider says. “What’s important is that older adults find the most beneficial environment for their personal situation.”

Sometimes the best way to help a parent feel independent is by giving them time and space to settle into their new home without “helicoptering” over them. Experts estimate that adjusting to assisted living can take anywhere from a couple weeks to six months, depending on the individual. Be mindful of balancing emotional support for your parent with allowing them to maintain their independence during the transition.

By checking in with your parent and supporting their needs, you can help foster their independence – and in turn promote a healthy outlook and overall well-being.

Illustration of three men gardening, one with a wheelbarrel of supplies, one water flowers and one planting flowers

Not sure where to start?

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