joy loverde
Joy Loverde

Path Carver.
Keynote Speaker.
Best-selling Author.

Solo Aging ♦ Caregiving ♦ Aging Parents

How to Get Your Aging Parents to Exercise

When I walked into Mom’s apartment, she was sitting on the sofa with a bag of ice on her arm. Seeing her sitting there looking sad and out of sorts stopped me dead in my tracks. As I was trying to process the situation, she said, “Aren’t you going to feel sorry for me?” I did not respond.

She proceeded to tell me that she was trying to hang up her blouse but found it hard to find the strength to put the hanger on the rod. Now she was nursing her arm.  The simple task of hanging up her blouse wore her out. Again, I was speechless.

Right before my eyes I was witnessing my mother doing fewer and fewer everyday tasks. No more walking to the mailbox (she asks me to mail her letters). No more lifting the carton of milk. (I do that, too). No more doing her own laundry (Yep, my job now). She was slowly becoming more and more helpless and expecting me to pick up the slack.

What I said to Mom after she told me about her blouse-hanging incident literally changed her life, and mine.

I sat down next to her, put my arm around her, looked her straight in the eye, and said in a calm and compassionate voice, “Tomorrow morning, I am going to the fitness center in our apartment building to walk on the treadmill. You are invited to join me. I realize that you have never been to a gym before, and you have never been on a treadmill in all your 86 years. But I will be by your side to help you get your strength back. Please call me when you wake up tomorrow morning and we’ll go to the gym.”

And then I slowly walked out of the room.

Much to my surprise, the next morning she called, and off we went to the gym. That was six years and 30 excessive pounds ago. With the help of the treadmill and 2-pound hand-weights, she’s now steady on her feet and back to completing everyday tasks by herself.

Here’s the big however…  If I do not go to the gym, either because I am out of town or taking the day off, she does not work out on her own. And that’s just the way it is.

Our arrangement is simple. She calls me when she wakes up and is dressed and ready to go to the gym. If she does not call me, I do not call her. I go to the gym alone.  When I see her in person later in the day, I make no mention of her not going to the gym (no guilting!). She knows that she is making a choice.

How do you get your parents to exercise or at least consider a healthier lifestyle? Bottom line is you can’t.

Employing a patronizing (and condescending) tone of voice accompanied by the words, “I’m worried about you,” does not work either. They are your parents, not your children.

If you want to influence your parents to exercise then help them connect the dots between independence and working out. One way to accomplish this is by NOT offering to do simple tasks for them. For example, when Mom says that she wants a glass of water, she knows to make the effort to get the water herself. It’s gotten to the point where now she is the one who tells me that getting up and moving around is a good thing.

I am also leading by example. When Mom first moved in, she would prepare large meals for lunch and supper. Now, she follows my routine of having salad only for dinner and saving the main meal for noon-time. She told me that she feels better and sleeps better.

The whole family is in on helping Mom get fit. Her grandchildren invite her to go for a walk to the park or they take her to the mall so she can walk with them. My sisters take her to the grocery store where she walks through the market for hours doing her own shopping. Invitations are hard to turn down from people who love you and want to be with you.

Sadly, there are many times when my Mom chooses not to work out. She gets into a slump – sometimes for weeks at a time — and she physically goes downhill quickly. She tells me that she knows the consequence of not working out, and I have no choice but to be supportive of her decisions, not critical. It’s not about me.

During times like these, I remind myself to enjoy the time I have left with her.