Can I turn my parents from couch potatoes into spring chickens?
July 2, 2007 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Both my parents are mad, Scottish and retired. They're 65 and 68, and weren't brought up in a culture of exercise. Now that they don't have a dog, they're terrifyingly sedentary. When I bring up the subject of exercise they either get defensive, or blow it off as something that crazy Americans do. How can I get them into some sort of vaguely regular exercise routine?

My brother and I have been trying to convince them to get another dog, but because they don't have any momentum in their lives they just endlessly talk about it, and never do it. I've been thinking that maybe I could get them a treadmill and they could walk and watch TV at the same time. This would also mean that they couldn't activate their favorite excuse - the terrible weather. I also thought maybe some statistics showing that active elderly people live longer might be useful. Any other ideas? (btw, their diet is also teh suck, but that'll *never* going to change. Oh, and I live in a different country so I can't just turn up with a puppy). And yes, I am aware of the failure rate of what I'm trying to do - but I gotta try, right?
posted by forallmankind to Human Relations (30 answers total)
start talking to them seriously about assisted living facilities and nursing homes. bring this up A LOT.

when they object to the discussion or brush it off, remind them that being active and eating well will help put off that decision for a few years.

if you pound on it enough, it might put the fear of god in them. and if it doesn't, well, at least you will know their wishes when the time comes to make decisions for them.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:10 AM on July 2, 2007

Buy them a Wii and show them the Sports CD. They can take up bowling, golf, tennis, boxing or baseball from the comfort of their living room and get some exercise to boot. Seems to be working in many nursing homes...,2933,260990,00.html
posted by bkeene12 at 8:11 AM on July 2, 2007

The Ramblers Association?
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 8:12 AM on July 2, 2007

They won't use the treadmill if they're averse to exercise and think it's a crazy American invention. They need something social that involves moving. Four ideas - a bicycle built for two, a membership to the local golf club, a wii with sports games, and dance lessons.
posted by iconomy at 8:13 AM on July 2, 2007

but I gotta try, right?

No... Your parents are grown-ups. They have a right to make their own decisions regarding their fitness habits. My parents are the same way, and although I think quite a bit about the strong possibility that neither of them is going to make it past his/her 60s, it's really their prerogative to do what they want. Hinting has little to no effect, and outright pressure (as with your parents) only results in defensiveness and the possibility of a diminished relationship with them. Oh, and my parents have a treadmill. It's become a great place for them to stack old mail and newspapers and magazines that they haven't gotten to yet.
posted by amro at 8:15 AM on July 2, 2007

Where do they live? Countryside, suburb, center of town?

Also one of these might help on an Irn-Bru/fried-Mars-bars run down to the shops. (God, I love Scotland.)
posted by mdonley at 8:16 AM on July 2, 2007

buy them another dog?
posted by crhanson at 8:18 AM on July 2, 2007

The Wii is an excellent idea. I am going to buy one for my mother's retirement home as a gift.
posted by A189Nut at 8:27 AM on July 2, 2007

They're only 68, they're not that old. If they aren't ill then it might not work to start badgering them about going into an assisted living facility. It may backfire and depress them to be constantly reminded about getting old. Sometimes that kind of talk will either make people more stubborn or lean them towards giving up. Neither is what you want here. You want them to feel more alive.

I would encourage you to talk to them about trying some Elderhostel activities. Before she went blind, my mom got pretty involved in Elderhostel and had a blast. The activities really excited her and encouraged her to stay more active. She was able to conveniently see and learn about interesting things she'd always wanted to check out, plus she met all sorts of other active seniors along the way. It's really cool.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:35 AM on July 2, 2007

BTW, I've never looked at Elderhostel prices before, and some people might not think it's expensive but I kinda do (I don't usually book $250 hotel rooms myself). But still, my mom got a lot out of it so it was apparently worth every penny for her. And if your parents sign up for local events then they can bypass the hotel costs, I'm sure.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:45 AM on July 2, 2007

I mostly agree with amro. The only thing I might try is buying them a membership at the local golf club (I assume they *were* brought up in a culture of golf?), or possibly even buying them a membership at the local art museum or science museum or aquarium any other institution that would interest them and get them out of the house.

But mostly, I would lay off the "you must exercise" talk. (Unless they're expecting you to support them financially, or take them in if they become incapacitated, and you're not willing/able to do so. Then it might be time to have a talk about how their sedentary lifestyles will eventually affect you. Otherwise, while you're certainly coming from a good place, it's just a bit presumptuous and condescending.)
posted by occhiblu at 8:49 AM on July 2, 2007

Also, FWIW I know exactly what you're going through. I go through it with my parents all the time. I still try and sometimes it works... and the rest of the time I have to just back off and let them make their own choices. I'm 100% sure they appreciate that you care and are trying to support them, though. So don't ever stop trying completely. Sometimes you can say something at just the right time to get them to make a change.

My mom stubbornly refused to have a pet for many years and then one day I got her to confess it was something she kind of missed. Her apartment doesn't allow dogs so within 1/2 hour she had a baby parakeet. I happened to be in town with her so I was able to get it myself, but if I hadn't I would've found a way to have one delivered somehow before she changed her mind. That parakeet is her best friend now, I don't know what she would do without it.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:59 AM on July 2, 2007

Uh, if the situation were reversed would you enjoy your parents nagging you about exercise?

Yup, I thought so.

They are adults. They get to be foolish if they so choose.
posted by konolia at 9:02 AM on July 2, 2007

If your brother's still living in the same area get him to spend time with them, invite them to go walking and talking with him.

As parents they're likely to see their kids as just kids still. This doesn't necessarily mean they won't value your opinion in and of itself, but it might mean they'll be very used to self-interest driving most of your interaction with them like most kids when growing up. Even as adults, they'll still discount what you say since they're just so used to you trying to get things out of them for your own benefit, like we all do with our parents.

The only way to overcome that is to invest something back into the relationship more than words. Time is best but if not possible encouraging gifts as mentioned by others, if chosen wisely with the "real them" very much in mind, might help.
posted by scheptech at 9:22 AM on July 2, 2007

What amro and konolia said. Let them live their lives as they see fit.
posted by languagehat at 9:29 AM on July 2, 2007

I've helped my folks have improve their attitude about exercise with a slow, gentle campaign. Elements of this ongoing campaign include sending the occasional "good news" article about how even very very minimal amounts of regular exercise greatly improves the health of older people, and by pointing out how I've snuck exercise into my daily routine.

In the case of my folks, they do WANT to get more exercise, but they find a lot of the information on exercise to be frustrating to filter through, since they're not interested in spending a lot of money or engaging in activities that they find silly.

And in fact, they do like it when I nag them a little. I'll sometimes point out that this is revenge for all those times they nagged me to eat my veggies when I was a kid. They were right about that, I'm right about getting some more exercise, let's all plan to stick around for a few more years, shall we? I don't quite get the vehemence of the "let 'em rot in their recliner if they want to" sentiment upthread.
posted by desuetude at 9:50 AM on July 2, 2007

I don't quite get the vehemence of the "let 'em rot in their recliner if they want to" sentiment upthread.

Well, I think there's a huge difference between "We want to, but we're overwhelmed and confused" versus "Exercise is a crazy American thing, leave us alone." And I've found with my own father, that when I get into nagging mode, he digs his heels in; when I try to just listen to how his life is and be supportive of whatever he's doing, he's more likely to feel like he can take some risks and talk to me about what's going on -- at which point it's easier, and more welcome, to problem-solve (eg, "It sounds like the weather's really bothering you. Would something like a treadmill help?") rather than dictate action based on my analysis of the problem rather than his ("Here, you're getting a treadmill.")
posted by occhiblu at 9:58 AM on July 2, 2007

I don't quite get the vehemence of the "let 'em rot in their recliner if they want to" sentiment upthread.

Don't get me wrong, it breaks my heart to see my parents (in my opinion) killing themselves; once they're gone I'll have no family. They know this, but they are autonomous adults, and I'd rather have a good relationship while they're around than treat them like children.
posted by amro at 10:12 AM on July 2, 2007

I don't quite get the vehemence of the "let 'em rot in their recliner if they want to" sentiment upthread.

Well, there's a bit of understandable libertarianism in that. There's always tension and balance-finding required between "letting people live their lives" and "caring for them". It's a tough call sometimes but the answer isn't usually to either disavow all familial responsibility or to try and completely take over. The success in these situations may be found in discovering the right middle path between the two extremes and investing more than just words.
posted by scheptech at 10:35 AM on July 2, 2007

If they talk about wanting to get another dog, and honestly do want one, why not help push them along the necessary steps? You could get names of rescue organizations or whatever that are nearby, or breeders with a litter of puppies, and very strongly suggest that they go and visit on day X. Maybe even call to get the necessary information (visiting hours and adoption requirements and whatnot.) If they like dogs and have no financial or physical reasons not to have one, I imagine that being around adoptable dogs would push them over the edge into dog-ownership.

(I hesitate to suggest the breeder/puppy idea, but if they have experience with that and would know what they're getting into, it doesn't seem bad. )
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:43 AM on July 2, 2007

once they're gone I'll have no family

or maybe they won't be gone, maybe one of them (the odds say the father) will simply suffer a stroke -- look at the stats, it's much more common than one thinks. and then one parent will exercise pushing the other's wheelchair! so it's like lose/win in a way right?

I say worrying about one's parents is always, always a decent thing to do, and the poster should be praised. one cannot stop time and make them live forever, yes, and lung cancer kills some non-smokers too, and thin, in-shape people can get diabetes and heart attacks and strokes too but trying to improve the odds for someone we love is a good thing.

I second the dance/golf suggestions, it seems about the only way they'll accept to exercise a bit. a dog would be another, but as you said you live abroad. good luck.
posted by matteo at 10:49 AM on July 2, 2007

or maybe they won't be gone, maybe one of them (the odds say the father) will simply suffer a stroke -- look at the stats, it's much more common than one thinks. and then one parent will exercise pushing the other's wheelchair! so it's like lose/win in a way right?

What's your point, matteo?
posted by amro at 10:53 AM on July 2, 2007

I'm going to contradict the "they're adults, stop nagging them" argument. I've now dealt with three close friends or relatives in their late sixties and seventies, and making sure they got the care they needed was the right thing in all cases.

Seniors, like any people, can be fiercely (stubbornly) independent, however, they may also be masking problems. My mother-in-law had early undiagnosed Alzheimers and was very resistant to any offers of assistance. It was only through being a pest that we figured out what was really going on and made sure she was, for instance, actually eating and bathing regularly, while we started the search for a decent rest home.

Even without a serious problem like Alzheimers, seniors can fall into unhealthy patterns like anyone else - but because of age (their friends have died or are less engaged) they may not have peers who can tell them when they're doing something unhealthy.

Showing interest in their health is in their interest and yours. Don't tell yourselves "oh, they can manage." Instead, make sure of it, because there may be no one else looking out for them. And you will eventually have to see to their needs - better to start now, when you can do small things that give them years of additional independence.
posted by zippy at 10:57 AM on July 2, 2007

I'm having a similar problem with my dad. He's 83 and spends most of his time in his chair watching TV. His doctor tells him he should at least walk around the block once every day, but Dad insists he gets enough exercise going up and down the basement steps twice a day to clean the cats' litter boxes. Part of his problem, I think, is that he has rebounded back quickly from serious illnesses three times, and is under the impression that no matter what happens to him, his doctor can fix it. (For example, he had a heart attack in '92; the original prognosis was he'd be in ICU for a week, then a regular hospital room for another. He was home in six days.)

My mom is in her mid-70s, and for the past few years has gotten out each day for a regular walk, weather permitting. Luckily, a neighbor moved in down the street who is about her age, and they walk together. Mom has turned her daily walk into a prospecting mission; she checks the ground for coins. She always manages to find a few pennies on the ground, sometimes even a dime or a quarter. Each find excites her, no matter how minimal, and she keeps a jar of her "found" money. Would the prospect of collecting a stash of coins entice your parents to get out and walk a little? Otherwise, I do think getting them a dog is a good idea. They'll be obligated to get out and walk everyday then, plus just cleaning up after him and grooming him requires some movement. The pooch will also provide companionship and maybe protection.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:23 AM on July 2, 2007

It's very frustrating to see people you care about just ignore, and even add to, their health risks. Every sedentary day deprives them of future fitness, well-being, and independence.

They don't believe exercise would do them significant good. They don't want to try and fail. They think it will be difficult, uncomfortable, or expensive. Most of all, they don't think about what WILL happen to them if they continue as they are living now.

The part of this that IS your business is what'll happen later, when they can't get around anymore on their own or when one is alone because the other has died prematurely. Their frailness and bad health will become your problem. You can't make people take care of themselves, but you can remind them that you'll gladly help them now and that you're not going to be able to help them later in all the ways they'll need help.
posted by wryly at 12:25 PM on July 2, 2007

Yes, that exercise thing, it's all crazy and American.

Fortunately there are some crazy people in this country who are catching onto the idea and promoting it to people like your parents... for instance, these people: Paths for All. I don't know where your parents live, but their Local Authority (or whatever the term is north of the border) will probably have some schemes as well, like this one in Glasgow. There's a lot of money in health promotion at the moment, and GPs are also a lot more likely to refer people to such schemes.

Exercise doesn't need to be hours in the gym... some of the fittest retirees I've met, spent a day or two a week doing environmental conservation. So other ideas... many dog rescue organisations want volunteer dog walkers and socialisers (for instance, the Dogs Trust). It could be an alternative to getting a new dog.

Are there other things they are interested in? If they like old things (or just a nice day out with a tea room) maybe you buy them membership of the National Trust for Scotland.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:13 PM on July 2, 2007

If you can't convince them to get a dog, very unlikely you'll get them hooked on Wii sports at their age (unless they're the rare sort of older folks who are into that sort of thing). The dog-walking, dance and golf ideas are good. But mostly, yeah, it's up to them.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:11 PM on July 2, 2007

Stop telling them what to do. Visit, and ask one or both of them to go with you on a walk to the pub/coffee house, or go to a nearby pretty hiking trail. Next visit, after a nice meal, announce your desire to stretch your legs and ask for company. If they enjoy this activity, they'll do it again.

Around here, many people go to malls and walk laps, then hang out at McDonalds drinking coffee. Find out what other people their age are doing, and where they're hanging out, then go there with them.

If they really don't want to exercise, they just won't. But if they're just bored and can't get off the couch, you might be able to give them a nudge. It's nice to remind them that you love them and want them to be healthy so they'll be around longer.
posted by theora55 at 2:40 PM on July 2, 2007

Uh, if the situation were reversed would you enjoy your parents nagging you about exercise?

If I was engaged in activity (or nonactivity) which was harmful to my health, I certainly hope at least one of my acquaintances or family members would care enough to nag me about it.

Even only a year saved from nursing homes/senility/incapacity is worth any amount of concerned campaigning or nudging. And even mild exercise could easily save more than a year. (Speaking as a person who has seen quite a lot of the hell of incapacity and nursing homes.)
posted by frobozz at 9:24 PM on July 2, 2007

I just saw this article about the French suspiciousness of jogging (and non-team-sport exercise in general, it seems to me).

[Sarkosy has rekindled the] French suspicion that the habit is for self-centred individualists such as the Americans who popularised it. “Jogging is of course about performance and individualism, values that are traditionally ascribed to the Right,” Odile Baudrier, editor of V02 magazine, a sports publication, told Libération. Patrick Mignon, a sports sociologist, noted that French intellectuals had always held sport in contempt, while totalitarian regimes cultivated physical fitness.

It might be interesting to send them the article to start a conversation about their views, your concerns, and how the two might be reconciled?
posted by occhiblu at 11:00 AM on July 9, 2007

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