We know that few things are more satisfying than helping a senior to live a happier, more fulfilling life. You can make a big difference in the life of a senior in more ways than one.
With so many possibilities, how do you know where to begin or what will make the biggest difference? The best way to get started is to hone your powers of observation and improve your listening skills. Be proactive. Make an effort to pay the same kind of attention to your clients that you muster up for your friends and family.
Is their home tidy and well-maintained? What about their social life? How computer-savvy are they? What topics of conversation crop up over and over again?
With just a little time and effort, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to figure out where you can make a difference. After that, all it takes is time, research, energy and maybe a little elbow-grease.
1. Show Them How to Take Advantage of New Technologies.
Remember the first time you used a computer? And tried programming your cell phone, VCR, DVD or cable? It isn’t as easy as you’d think. Instruction manuals are printed in midget type and the tiny buttons on remotes and digital equipment make following the instructions even harder.
Many seniors are techno-savvy. But those who aren’t are often afraid of new technologies and frustrated by the equipment and manuals. You can help your clients enjoy a whole new world of communication and information by taking the time to determine what kind of equipment they have and finding out what they know and where they are having difficulties.
Walking them through the basics can help them overcome their fears but if technology isn’t your bag, don’t worry. There are lots of classes at senior centers, libraries, schools, community colleges and universities. Retail stores and manufacturers even offer special courses. A little research will reveal plenty of experts with up-to-the-minute know-how who are teaching students of all ages how to make technology work for them.
2. Create a Family History They Can Share With Others.
Do you know where your great-great-grandparents were born or how they came to this country? Can you describe how they lived, worked or died? If you don’t know much, you’re not alone. Once our elders pass away, family histories and traditions are lost if they’re not documented and preserved by family members or friends.
Taking a family history is a great way to get to know a client and is a gift they can treasure forever. You don’t need to be an expert either. Genealogy is one of the hottest hobbies today, and there is a wealth of excellent resources you can tap into. The internet offers numerous sites such as Ancestry.com, EllisIsland.org and genhomepage.com. Religious groups such as the Mormons have some of the most extensive libraries and documentation in the world. Closer to home, community colleges pack classrooms with genealogy students. Libraries are stocked with books on the subject too.
Ask a few questions about your client’s relatives or where they came from and you could get an ear-full. Researchers say when you age, you remember more about the past than the present. Great-aunt Mary’s emigration from Sweden may be fresher in your client’s mind than who won yesterday’s ball game.
You can be the conduit for these memories or set your clients off on a quest of their own. Either way, if it’s true what they say about the journey being the destination, get ready for a fascinating trip.
3. Create Opportunities to Socialize and Learn.
Loneliness, boredom and apathy are common emotions that plague seniors. The death of a spouse and distance from friends and family members can leave seniors lonely and isolated. Poor health or disabilities may prevent them from getting out of the house and socializing.
Sitting home in front of the television day in and day out is no substitute for engaging with others and exchanging ideas, especially when hundreds of courses and activities are available at community centers, colleges and non-profit organizations. Get a catalogue and review the courses with them. With all the choices, there is bound to be a class or program that sparks their interest.
If travel is their bag, “Elderhostel,” an affordable international program that combines learning with travel, might be just up their alley.
Perhaps they have a hobby, such as fishing or shuffleboard. Invite them along the next time you’re heading out to the lake or recreational complex. Offer to take them to church, or take in a movie.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what you do. It’s the fact you’ve taken the time and effort to include them and your interaction that counts.
4. Teach Them How to use a Digital Camera or Cell Phone to Send and Receive Photos.
There’s nothing more exciting than getting photos of your first grandchild. Twenty years ago, photos came by mail. Today, they arrive instantly – if you have a digital camera, computer or cell phone and know how to send and retrieve them.
Think what a difference it would make if your client could carry on conversations and exchange photos and computer-generated greeting cards with their children, friends and family across the country and around the world.
The first step is to find out if they are interested. Demonstrate how the technology works and see how they respond. If they want to know more, offer to schedule lessons or direct them to specific classes.
If you sense they are simply not into or up to digital photography, there are still ways you can enable them to share their photos and memories of happy times.
There are probably packets of photos stacked in shoe boxes, sliding out of albums or shut away in desk drawers. Maybe they would appreciate a little assistance organizing them or putting them in albums.
Introduce them to Scrapbooking, a popular new method of personalizing photos and memorabilia. Virtually every community has a Scrapbooking course or craft center where you can purchase materials and take courses.
Sharing your clients’ photos will tell you more about them than hours of conversation. And the best part? Watching their faces when they send or receive their first digital photo.
5. Teach Games and Organize Puzzle Exchanges
Use or lose it – at least that’s what they say. Mind-challenging puzzles and games are excellent tools for boosting brainpower and bringing people together.
If your community doesn’t have a game and puzzle exchange, start one. If they have one, add to it. Check around the house and see if you have any games you haven’t played lately. Ask your friends or local businesses to donate. Stop by a Goodwill or Salvation Army outlet. You can usually find all kinds of games on the shelves.
You can also volunteer to teach games at the local recreation or senior center. There are many new games, such as Sudoku, that seniors are unfamiliar with.
The internet provides hundreds of game sites. Seniors who have access to the internet and know how to use it have a world of puzzle and game opportunities at their fingertips. Library shelves are filled with puzzle and game books. Take a few out and loan them to a senior. Buy a puzzle book at your supermarket or drugstore to take as a gift the next time you visit your client.
Better yet, pick out a puzzle and do it together. Two heads are better than one and a lot more fun too.
6. Plant a Window Box.
Living plants bring color and add joy to our lives. Many seniors are active and avid gardeners. If they are still gardening, ask if you can spend some time in the garden with them. Bring along a picnic lunch or a gift such as gloves, a sunhat or rolling garden stool. If they no longer garden or live in an apartment or condo, there are several ways to bring the outdoors inside to them.
Visit your local nursery and pick out a window box or pretty garden pot. Find out what plants or herbs are in season and fill the container. Add a big bow and attach a mini-watering can and instructions.
As the seasons change, come by and re-plant the container. Your client will welcome the attention and the planter will serve as a daily reminder of your concern.
7. Introduce Them to Bookmobiles and Books on Tape.
Reading is one of the most popular hobbies in America. Library use is at an all-time high and book sales at chain bookstores and websites such as Amazon.com are booming.
You may notice that your client has a well-filled bookcase or books and paperbacks lying around. Find out what they like to read. Ask if they use the library. If they don’t, offer to get them a card and list of library locations. Arrange for a visit to the Bookmobile, a library van that travels to sites throughout the city or county. Exchange new and used books with your client and offer to order or pick up books at a local bookstore or on-line for them. Invite them to join a book club.
If they are losing or have lost their eyesight, tell them how to obtain books on tape. Books on tape tend to be expensive but libraries usually have a wide selection and used bookstores are a good low-cost source.
National Public Radio stations across the nation provide Reading for The Blind programming. Volunteers come into the station and read local and national newspapers, magazines and books. Check your local NPR station for specific programming.
8. Help Organize a Garage Sale.
When seniors decide to move into more senior-friendly housing, or to move closer to kids and grandkids, one of the first steps is to get rid of all that excess stuff they’ve accumulated over the years. Garage sales are a tried-and-true way of doing that.
The key to a successful garage sale is planning. The longer you spend collecting, pricing and organizing items for your sale, the more successful it will be. Choose a weekend date that won’t conflict with holidays or other special events that might distract prospective customers. Try to schedule your sale to coincide with other neighbors’ sales. More sales equal more customers. Cluster things in categories. Place the most desirable items in the back of the garage so browsers have to look at your other merchandise on their way to the most popular items.
Remember that your objective is to get rid of things you no longer want, so don’t overprice items. Spend some time before your sale visiting others to get a feel for what people are asking for different kinds of items. Books, records, tools, sporting goods, and household items are always popular.
Use the classified section of your newspaper for your advertising. Mention three or four specific items for sale, plus the time of your sale. Most of your business will be in the first hour of your sale, so be sure to have plenty of help. A fanny pack for a cash register is safer than a cash box that needs constant attention and always make sure to have plenty of change on hand.