Because of the many changes and losses that occur in later life, sometimes combined with physical or cognitive challenges, older adults may benefit from some assistance in building meaningful friendships with other elders in their life. Eldercare professionals can do a lot to help this process along.
In last week’s post, we covered the “why” of supporting seniors as they build meaningful relationships. This week, let’s talk about the “how.”
I’ve got four ways to think about how to cultivate these relationships, with several ideas below. What does each category bring to mind for you?
Structure the environment to foster positive relationships.
Some of this will be determined by the constraints of the physical space in which you work, and some will be regulated by the powers that be. We can all look for opportunities to structure the environment to encourage socialization, however. Here are some ideas:
- Create conversation stations. For elders who are higher functioning, have a central place for leaving newspapers and magazines, as well as coffee or other refreshments. You may need to help get the conversation going, but having a central place to come to chat creates an expectation to socialize in that place.
- Use rummage boxes for people with dementia, and change them out frequently. This is an idea borrowed from the Montessori philosophy. Rather than having every photo and game and doll out, change out the materials in your rummage boxes periodically. These different materials will provide things for seniors to show and share with each other, and the variety will help encourage caregivers to interact with the seniors.
- Be mindful of placement. In music therapy groups, I always try to get everyone in one semi-circle, so that we can all see each other as we share music. The same goes for any activity, and for casual conversations, too – you want to help seniors position themselves so interaction and conversation can happen naturally. In addition, have chairs available for people who won’t have a wheelchair or walker available – simply being able to sit down encourages conversation, too.
- Change out the music. I think it’s ideal to let seniors choose their own music if they can, but if you’re left in charge, change out the music you play in a gathering area or in the dining room. (This is a great place to use the discussion starters for the song spotlights sets available in the members’ area.)
Help seniors get to know each other.
- Publish a photo and short bio of any new resident in the community. I’ve seen these in community newsletters and on bulletin boards in community areas. Both work well. Even better? Have a “resident reporter” or welcome committee gather the information and write these bios.
- Work in home care? Encourage your seniors to spend time with other older adults, whether that is by going to an exercise group or senior center periodically, attending church, or asking the neighbors to visit.
- Use music that includes residents’ names and interests. Depending on your musical comfort level, you could include names in the song “He’s Got The Whole World” or drum name rhythms on hand percussion instruments. You could even help residents write their own get-to-know-you songs.
Help seniors give to each other.
- Help your senior make greeting cards or cookies to share with neighbors or visitors.
- Have your crafting group make props for the music and drama groups, or decorations for the community parties. Being able to create something for someone else is a gift in itself!
- Ask senior participants to contribute what they know about fellow residents in creative projects such as group songwriting and community murals. This is especially important for residents who can’t speak for themselves (and who the other residents may know better than you!)
Help seniors care for each other (and don’t get in the way).
- Give elders time to grieve. Make sure seniors can attend funerals of their friends who have died, or hold a memorial service periodically in your community for seniors who couldn’t attend funerals.
- Amplify the times when people are interacting well. In music therapy, when one resident grabs another’s hand and they both start beating the rhythm together, I point it out, give them a big smile and encourage them to keep it up! The same goes for any other activity.
- Gather ideas from the elders you serve and help them bring those ideas to fruition. You can help coordinate efforts to cultivate a caring community. (But again, don’t get in the way!)
This list barely scratches the surface of all that we can do to cultivate neighborly love among our seniors. Of course, what you do will go along with the responsibilities you have in your work role, and the particular skills and interests that you have. Let’s just say some of us should be baking cookies, and some should stick with singing country tunes!
What are your best ideas for helping elders to build relationships with each other? Please leave your thoughts below!