The Importance of Play in Old Age

The older we get, the more serious we tend to become. When we’re young, afternoons are spent in imaginary worlds, fighting dragons made of fallen branches and storming prisons built of piled rocks. Children are encouraged to play, to dream, and to engage in collaboration and creation. Parents know the myriad benefits of play: it strengthens the mind, fosters friendships, and encourages creativity. As children play, goals sprout from their imaginations. These goals are malleable, changing from day to day, moment to moment. Some are feasible and some are fantasy, although there’s often no reason to distinguish between the two. Parents feed, bathe, clothe, and house their children, leaving them free to explore other pursuits. To children, the world seems like an endless playground to discover.

As we get older, our play allowance shrinks, shrivels, and often disappears entirely. Recess is over by middle school. In high school, college prep, part-time jobs, and the threat of entering the “real world” crowd out the imaginary, magical places that we once inhabited. And after graduation, upon entering the workforce, we’re taught to give precedence to responsibility over play. There are bills to pay, a family to support, a house to maintain, and deadlines to meet.  With so many obligations and expectations, it’s no wonder that people forget how to play for the sake of playing. Even when adults engage in the few outlets that society offers-- exercise classes, block parties, religious services--they frequently justify their participation in these activities with their potential to benefits other, “more important” areas of their lives. Suddenly, activities that are supposed to be fun become mere extensions of work.

Most of us have, or have had, a vision of our “dream self”--our very best version that will all but guarantee our everlasting happiness. Rather than transporting us to mystical lands, our imagination of this perfect person drives us to cut out everything extraneous in its pursuit. Unfortunately, our dream self can never be reached. We say to ourselves, “As soon as I get this promotion” or “As soon as I find a partner” or “As soon as I lose ten pounds, then I’ll finally be happy.” The problem is that happiness isn’t a permanent state, and that this type of thinking deprives us of satisfaction, enjoyment, and the ability to live in the present.

In old age, you’re in a position where you no longer have to fight for your “complete” self. You’re already there. Instead, you have the chance to reflect, to look back on the events that have brought you here. This stage offers a chance to reconsider your lifelong quest of self-improvement. By now, you’ve realized that your life has turned out completely differently than what you once imagined. You may never have become your “perfect self,” instead having realized that there’s no such thing as a “perfect self” after all.

Once you retire, time is suddenly open and empty, a change that can feel scary, daunting, and unforgiving. It may seem impossible to snap out of that forever-reaching mindset - to turn away from the future and its seemingly fast-approaching end. Time may seem alien, so different from the full and regimented routine that came to define you. Without anything to work toward, what is there to do? Life hasn’t been as unstructured since childhood. And for many seniors, childhood was so long ago that it’s nothing more than hazy memories. It no longer seems so easy to fill an empty day with joy and exploration. In old age, the feeling that everything’s been done can weight upon you. Our culture insists that all actions must have a purpose, but then what is your purpose when your “job” is done? Many goals have already been completed-- building a family, buying a house, saving for retirement - and others have finally been abandoned or reconsidered.

Suddenly the wider definition of life returns, the one that children adopt when they play simply to play: the enjoyment of life itself. Old age offers the opportunity to reintroduce the long-dormant state of wonder and endless possibility. In retirement, you can finally cut yourself some slack, reassess the importance of certain goals, and even reflect upon the priority of reaching goals in the first place. In old age, the chance to play returns, replacing the need to always work to accomplish something. Seniors come full circle, back to that childlike sense of freedom and awareness of the present moment. After retiring, your schedule’s flexible, your work’s done, and your responsibilities (for the most part) are fulfilled. The real question becomes, how can you have fun if you’ve forgotten how to play?

The only thing to do is try: to consciously participate in activities designed for enjoyment and to go into these activities with an open and curious mindset. Play is far more about your mental state than the activity itself. The exact same activity can be playful or it can be a chore. It all depends on you - your mood, your level of interest, and your attitude. If you’re a caregiver, you can benefit just as much from this deliberate readjustment. You may not have reached retirement yet, but you still have the chance to shift your patterns and reintroduce play into your life. Take inspiration from the loved one whom you care for. Imagine yourself in retirement and how you might spend your time. Pretend, for a moment, that you’re free of obligations and ask yourself what you might want to do. Try to go into activities with no purpose or deadline, but merely for the sake of having fun. It’s a new kind of fulfillment, but one that’s equally as valuable.

Testimonials from the 2016 Merrill Lynch Study, Leisure in Retirement: Beyond the Bucket List,”  illustrate the changes that occur after the transition into retirement. One retiree in the study recounted, “When I was younger, I was focused on having a nice house and a great car. Now that I’m older, I realize it’s about the experiences in life--not the things--that matter most.” Another said, “Before retirement, I defined myself by my work. Now, I define myself by what I do with my leisure--I’m now a grandmother, a French student, a cook, and a volunteer.” The study found that contrary to  the media’s portrayal of the ”golden age” of youth, the experience of fun actually peaks in retirement. Even if it might take some time to adjust your mentality, be reassured that fun is on the horizon!

Below you’ll find a range of senior activities for all seasons, budgets, and moods. There are activities that can involve multi-generational participation; there are options that promote new friendships among peers; there are ideas for relaxation, for exploration, for wonder, and just for pure experience. Whether you’re a senior or a caregiver, hopefully this list will inspire you to play! There’s no goals, no obligations, no chores. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to enjoy it, to have it be a certain way, to commit to it. All options are voluntary. Choose what sounds fun to you, what brings you pleasure, and what frees you from expectations and responsibilities. Let play lift your spirit and fill your heart!

Play at home:

  • Pamper yourself: Exchange partner massages, give yourself a manicure, or take a bubble bath.
  • Have a movie night: Try out one of our suggestions, stream a movie through one of the many online services, or watch one of your old favorites! Check out Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the “100 best-reviewed classic movies of all time.”  
  • Sign up for an online dating app, (check out some of your options in my article “First Date Tips for Seniors”) meet some new people, and plan a date!
  • Join an organization: Options include AARP, whose mission is to “enhance the quality of life for all as we age, lead positive social change and deliver value to members through information, advocacy, and service,” the American Seniors Organization, known nationally as “the conservative alternative to the AARP,” Toastmasters International, a public speaking and leadership club, the Red Hat Society, a 50-plus all-women’s club geared toward having fun, Senior Net, an organization focused on teaching seniors about technology, and senior Meetup groups, which help connect seniors with common interests.

  • Cook something you’ve never cooked before: Try cooking some make-ahead single serving meals or bake and decorate a special treat (either for yourself or someone you care about).
  • Stretch: Take a look at this article that illustrates 9 stretches for seniors
  • Adopt or foster a pet: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers pets for adoption. Also check out Dogs Without Borders, an organization that will cover the cost of food, toys, and medical care for your foster dog.
  • Listen to music or learn an instrument
  • Write: write a letter to a penpal, start a personal journal, or try your hand at writing a short story or poetry
  • Research your ancestry and make a family tree: check out sites like MyHeritage, Ancestry, or the list of free genealogy sites on Family History Daily
  • Listen to a podcast or TED talk to stimulate your mind: Subjects cover every genre imaginable, so choose one that suits your person interests and get learning!
  • Learn new technology: Check out Techboomers, a site that offers courses on technology basics that range from internet safely to digital literacy.

  • Take an online class: The Khan Academy offers a massive selection of free online course in every subject, as well as Massive Open Online Courses which includes lessons that range from learning a new language to learning how to code.
  • Simplify your life and sell what you no longer need in a yard sale or donate your possessions to a charitable organization
  • Work on home improvements: Check out our article on the best bathroom improvements for seniors
  • Take a nap
  • Invest in or make a bird feeder that can hang outside your favorite window. Learn about different types of birds that live in your area through a book, a birdwatching course, or online.
  • Try a fitness video: Check out the suggestions listed in our article: “Exercise Together with Your Senior Loved One!”:
  • Light a fire in the fireplace and cozy up

Play out on the town:

  • Try a new restaurant: Go to a spot recommended by a friend or your local newspaper.
  • Go on a date: Read our article about first dates and try out your new skills.
  • Go bowling: Find your nearest bowling alley and invite your friends or family to join you for a couple games. If you enjoy yourself, check out the alley’s leagues, some of which are specifically geared toward seniors.
  • Visit family or friends: Socialization is one of the most important activities to promote positive outcomes in old age. Make it a priority by scheduling weekly meetups with the people you love.
  • Check out your Senior Center: Programs include movie nights, art classes, computer classes, discussion groups, social services, meals, exercise classes, and game time.

  • Go swimming: Visit your local YMCA or community pool. Take a water aerobics class, read on a lounge chair and go for a dip, swim some laps alone, or join a masters team. The pool is also a great place to spend time with your children and grandchildren, playing games and splashing around.
  • Play partners tennis: Find a court near you and someone who is at your relative skill level. Schedule a weekly game or find a tennis league that plays doubles matches. Check out the National Senior Games Association to find a tennis partner.
  • Visit a farmer’s market or a flea market: Markets are often open on Saturdays and Sundays and they’re fantastic places to pick up fresh, local produce, homemade crafts, and funky trinkets that can be gifted or added to your home decor.
  • Go to an exercise class: Read about the importance of exercise for some inspiration and ideas about the variety of choices that are out there for seniors!

  • Attend a yoga class: Check back to Ayuda in a couple of weeks for an article about yoga for seniors. Start with a Yin yoga class, a slow-paced, beginners-friendly style that focuses on stretching and relaxation.
  • Pay someone else to pamper you: Get a massage, a manicure, or go to a spa.
  • Go dancing: Try out a zumba, salsa, line dancing, ballroom dancing, or swing dancing class.
  • Sing karaoke: Don’t be shy! Singing your favorite song can feel amazing. And if you’re too nervous to sing on your own, practice a duet with your partner that will blow the crowd away. Check out your karaoke options, from events at your Senior Center to karaoke nights at nearby restaurants and bars.
  • Volunteer: There are countless options, including your local charities, childcare facilities, schools, churches, libraries, non-profits, community centers, homeless shelters, food banks, animal shelters, museums, places of worship, hospices, seniors’ centers, theaters, and veterans homes.

  • Join a senior sports league: Check out The National Senior Games Association to find a league near you and to participate in an Olympic style competition for ages 50 and up!
  • Go to the library/ browse an independent bookstore: Check out WorldCat, the world’s largest library catalog to find a specific book you have in mind or find an unexpected recommendation at your local bookstore.
  • Join a book club: Check out your local Senior Center or connect with your friends and family to start a monthly meeting.
  • Take a college class: Most colleges offer the option to audit courses. Check with your local institution to see if you can enroll and take the class that compels you most.

  • Take a computer class: While you can take computer classes online, sometimes it’s easier to attend an in-person class and get live feedback. It can also help you meet new people and learn from each other.
  • Visit a museum: Research your options, from natural history museums to air and space museums to art museums. Make a whole day of it by inviting a friend, going out for lunch, and discussing the exhibits. Keep your eye out for these amazing artists who practiced well into old age!
  • Go on a bus tour: Even if you’ve lived in the same place forever, bus tours can sometimes provide interesting tidbits that you never knew about your town. They’re a great option if you have limited mobility, since you can see the sites while remaining seated.
  • Go to a concert: Find out who’s playing in your local newspaper and go see a band that you’ve always loved or try out a new group that sounds interesting. Check back to Ayuda’s event page to keep up to date with our scheduled concerts.
  • Go to a comedy show: Laughing is guaranteed to bring you joy. Do a little research or ask some friends to find a set that will leave you grinning ear-to-ear (rather than cringing in your seat).

  • Go to a sporting event: Invite a friend to match. Choose your favorite sport, whether it be soccer, basketball, baseball, football, or something else entirely. If you want to save some money and avoid the crowds, check out minor league and semi-pro games!
  • Go to a play: Find a Shakespeare in the Park event near you, go to your local theater, or see an off-Broadway show when it comes into town. Dress up in something that makes you feel your best and invite a friend to share the experience with.
  • Go to a winery or brewery and try a tasting flight: Pick your favorite and buy a bottle or a crowler to bring home to save for a special evening.
  • Explore nearby tourist attractions: Try the attractions that you’ve always meant to do, but never gotten around to actually doing. Pretend you’re a tourist for the day and see the place you live through a new set of eyes.
  • Visit a nursery: Buy the plants and materials that you need for your garden or simply wander around and enjoy the huge range of plants on display.

  • Attend a lecture, reading, or book signing
  • Go to a religious service
  • Go on a historical walking tour: There are lots of books that describe local walking tours as well as many online descriptions. Walking tours are a great way to exercise, can take you places you’ve never been before, and can point out architectural and natural details that you never would have spotted on your own.
  • Shop for antiques
  • Travel: Go on a cruise, trade houses, become a campground host, rent an RV or motorhome and explore the country, or go to an adult/senior summer camp like Camp Isabella Freedman (specifically for seniors), Camp Chief Ouray (specifically for seniors), or Camp Grounded (for adults of all ages)

Play outside

  • Go on a walk or hike outside: Walk through the neighborhood, visit your local park, or organize a more ambitious trip with a loved one. Make sure that you invest in a pair of sturdy walking shoes and that you have a route planned out before you go.
  • Go golfing/ miniature golfing: Reserve a tee time, hit some balls on the driving range, or practice your putting. Golfing is a wonderful way to socialize, to get some exercise, to soak up the sun, and to relax in a beautiful place.
  • Work in the garden: Start a vegetable, herb, or flower garden. There’s something special about cooking with home-grown produce and about seeing the bulbs you planted in the fall bloom in the spring.
  • Go birdwatching: Find a birdwatching group through the American Birding Association, invite a friend and purchase a guidebook, or simply get outside with your binoculars and see what’s out there! No matter which way you do it, you’ll be shocked by the diversity and the fantastic colors of the birds in your area.

  • Practice your landscape photography
  • Play lawn games: There are lots of different options, such as shuffleboard, bocce ball, horseshoes, croquet, frisbee, pickleball, lawn bowling, badminton, or cornhole.
  • Go camping: Check out Recreation.gov or ReserveAmerica to find a huge number of campsite offerings, many of which accept reservations in advance. Camping can be as simple or as glamorous as you want, so don’t be afraid to forsake your bed for the great outdoors!
  • Go on a bike ride: Choose flat bike paths, wear a helmet, and bike with a buddy. Biking is a low-impact activity that can accommodate a range of ambitions and that’s suitable for all ages.
  • Go fishing: Find a partner and go out on a boat or bring a folding chair and fish from the dock. Take a fishing lesson if you’ve never fished before or find a fishing excursion if you’re interested in a more demanding adventure.

  • Go on a picnic: Pack a baguette, sliced cheese and sliced meat, fruit, a bottle of sparkling water, and a blanket. Invite a loved one to the park and share in a relaxing meal beneath a tree in the dappled sunlight!
  • Go on a boat ride: There are many different ways to get out on the water from renting a kayak or canoe to going on a guided boat tour. Research your choices online and see what strikes your fancy.
  • Fly a kite: Choose a windy day, find an open field, and let your kite soar! This is an especially fun activity to do with the grandkids, since you’ll get to share in the magic together.
  • Go metal detecting(ideally on a beach): It may seem silly, but metal detecting can provide great exercise and a surprising deal of excitement as you explore new places and find hidden treasure.

If you remain unconvinced about the importance of play, check out the science behind it! Studies have shown that playing can improve your cognitive abilities, strengthen your social life, boost your mental and emotional state, increase your energy and vigor, and even extend your life. So what are you waiting for? Pick you favorite activity from the many options listed above, and try it out. And if one doesn’t work for you, don’t despair. Keep exploring, just as you did in childhood. With some many choices out there, you’re guaranteed to find one that you absolutely love!