Ask the Expert – Amy Natt

My mom sits all day and watches TV. She watches old shows, and she watches the same ones over and over. It’s the same stuff all day. She won’t watch anything new. She does that or sits on her phone and plays games. I can’t get her to go out or do anything else. And it’s driving me nuts. It makes me irritable. I don’t like listening to those shows all day long. What can I do to help her and me?

There are a few thoughts that came to mind when I received your question. First, good for you for asking the question. Many adult children and caregivers experience high levels of frustration and irritability at times. It is important to talk about them and try to find solutions. As you pointed out, it impacts both of you, so it is important to address.

While I do not know the specifics of your mom’s current medical or cognitive status, I can say that repetition and routine often bring comfort as a person is aging. There are several reasons for this.

  1. Many things in life, beyond our control, change as a part of the aging process. When we feel a lack of control in certain areas of life (illness, friends moving, changes in mobility) we tend to overcontrol those that we can. This can be the simple things, like meals, when to bathe, what to watch on television, etc. These can help restore a sense of normalcy.
  2. Some older adult experience cognitive changes. Short term memory loss can lead to repetition. It might be repeating certain phrases or thoughts. It might also be reading or watching the same thing over and over. It is likely she can relate to what she is watching and that brings about comfort.
  3. The games bring a sense of success, something your mom feels she can accomplish, enjoy, and participate in. There may be other things in her life that seem out grasp or cause frustration. The games are something she knows she can navigate and have become a part of her routine.
  4. How is your mom’s mood? Have you noticed any changes in eating, sleeping or general affect? Have there been changes in her social network and the things she has always enjoyed? These could all be indicators of a larger mental health issue that should be discussed with her physician.

There is phenomenon I have witnessed many times over my 25 years of working with older adults. I call it battening down the hatches. People tend to shrink their life to feel manageable. Over time, this can become smaller and smaller. It is something to be aware of, but what do about it can be more challenging.

Sometimes it is appropriate. People adapt and make changes based on ability. However, it can also be very isolating and lead to depression, reduced mobility and declining cognitive abilities. You want a person to be appropriately engaged and stimulated without causing increased stress for them.

In your situation, I would try adding something to the routine. Exercise is really important to maintain mobility and tends to boost mood. Incorporating a daily walk or even something stationary, like a pedal exerciser can be beneficial.  Cognitive stimulation is also important. She enjoys the games on her phone, perhaps she could do a puzzle or play cards? There are some simple board/card games you could try playing with her. Would she do a craft? Fold Laundry? Set the table? Water window plants? Some type of routine task you could ask her to help with.

Here is something else to consider. Maybe you need a break from mom? Is there a friend or relative that could come a couple times a week and engage her in some of the above ideas? There are also private duty caregivers who can come in and be a “friend” for few hours. This can become part of the daily routine and broaden her activities from television and games on her phone. It might take a few tries to get her to participate, but it does eventually work into a routine. This gives you and mom a break.

Now to the practical. Would your mom wear over the ear headphones? Or could you put on some noise canceling headphones? Is there a place in the house (like a den, sunroom, or small living area) she can go, but with doors that can help block noise? I had one family put in glass doors to their sunroom to create a space for dad to watch TV at a higher volume; maybe something like that could work in your situation?

My last suggestion is to look for a local support group for family caregivers. This can be formal or informal but would give you a routine sounding board and source for ideas. Many adult children face similar challenges, and it is helpful to see that you are not alone and that your feelings are perfectly normal. If you are caring for mom on an ongoing basis, build your support network now, you will need them, take breaks. Caregiver stress is real. The television may just be the thing to help you realize that its time to bring some other resources into to mix.

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Ask the Expert – Amy Natt was last modified: June 21st, 2023 by Sprout Media Lab Testing