Types of Activity

Activities Can Be

Activities Depend On

Activity Modifications for Older Adults



Benefits and Value of Activity

Activities and Older Adults

Specific Activities

Learning and Education

Elder hostel

Locating Elder hostels




The State of Elderly Housing

Current and Future Elderly Housing Needs




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Activity and Leisure


"Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity . . . even so does inaction sap the vigors of  the mind." 
            -- Leonardo da Vinci
Life satisfaction and quality of life are two concepts tied to successful aging. It is the perception of how satisfied we are with life and the quality of our life that accounts for a positive or negative feeling about life experiences. It is the daily activities chosen -- or not chosen -- that make up our life experiences. It is not our intent here to identify all possible activities. Rather, this section defines activity and leisure, describes how activities relate to older adults, cites positive aspects of activity, and briefly summarizes specific activities for older adults. Volunteerism and Exercise and Nutrition have their own sections, despite their close relationship to activity and retirement.

"USE IT OR LOSE IT."  This saying feels like a cliché, but it has been proven over and over again to be true. It applies to learning, memory, other mental skills, physical strength and agility, social relationships and on and on . . .

Staying engaged in life with activities and relationships is directly related to longevity and life satisfaction. So . . . are there specific activities that one can do to enhance life? Once again the remarkable differences across and within populations and individuals account for the need for a great variety of activities for older adults. For the most part, there is no "right" or "wrong" activity, if it makes you feel good physically and mentally.



Activity is defined as purposeful, and having an expected outcome. It may be incorporated into your routine and performed unconsciously or deliberately. Activity is performed to pass the time, satisfy our interests and/or fulfill our responsibilities. Family and friends may be included in the activities of obligation and meaning, such as daily household and family responsibilities. "Work" (for our purposes) is considered an activity for which we receive payment. (See Work). Volunteerism, household chores and family caregiving are also examples of activities. While not monetarily rewarded, they bring meaning and purpose to our lives. Elements of both play and work may occur in many activities.


 "Play is any activity that has great meaning but no purpose." 
                             -- Mark Twain
Other time may be spent in leisure, activities that are freely chosen. Some consider leisure activities to be play and recreation. Leisure implies a less serious purpose  without necessarily producing a product or skill. It implies joy, enthusiasm opportunity and energy. Some view leisure to be the opposite of work, i.e., "smelling the roses." We tend to associate leisure with retirement, and leisure activities may well occur within retirement.  They are, however,  often practiced in other areas of one's life. (Please see Work and Retirement for more information on retirement).
"It's not enough to be busy. The question is: What are we busy about?" 
                   -- Henry David Thoreau
Types of Activity

There is almost an infinite number of activities in which older adults engage. Some of the more general categories include:

  • Work (full or part-time job)
  • Political causes
  • Sleeping, eating, exercising
  • Shopping
  • Travel
  • Gardening and flower arranging
  • Arts and crafts
  • Media entertainment such as radio or television
  • Religious practices that are purposeful, traditional and ritualistic
  • Education or training
  • Cooking
  • Housekeeping chores
  • Activities can be:
  • Stimulating
  • Restful
  • Expressive
  • Active or passive
  • Introverted or extrovert
  •                          (Ebersole & Hess, 1995)
    Activities usually fulfill a need and often depend on:
    • Age and physical ability, e.g., increased frailty and increased age are correlated with decreased time spent in the community
    • Time
    • Work
    • Health
    • Location, i.e., a move to congregate housing or institution
    • Family Situation, i.e., loss of a help mate
    • Work role
    • Social Network
                   (Hooyman & Kiyak, 1996; Ebersole & Hess, 1995)

    Modification of activities for older adults: Activities may be modified to enhance the performance of an activity. Technology may make a task easier or actually allow an individual to perform an activity not otherwise possible.

    • Adequate Lighting
    • Large print
    • Hearing Aides
    • Devices such as magnifiers or needle threaders

    • The Arthritis Foundation has published a book describing many helpful aides, called "assistive devices"


    Other activities may encourage social connections for persons with common interests. These activities bring new dimension, information and meaning into lives. These may be clubs or groups that meet regularly. Some may target specific ages. Many national interest groups have local chapters. A search on the Internet can provide specialized interest groups such as: 

  • Dog rescue programs, etc.
  • Bridge, card or other game clubs or groups
  • Church circles, Bible study, Sunday school classes
  • Library classes
  • Drama interest groups
  • School alumni associations
  • Sorority or fraternity groups
  • Dinner groups
  • Neighborhood interest groups
  • The AARP Web Site offers more ideas for activities. (See also Spirituality and Creativity for additional activities).


    "Stay young by continuing to grow. You do not grow old, you become old by not growing."

                                               -- Wilford A. Peterson
    Benefits and Value of Activity

    Research has documented the value of activity continued into later life. A few of those benefits include:

    • Skill development, such as a regular bridge game
    • Exercise and physical activity
    • Hope and enthusiasm in the future
    • Self expression or creativity
    • A sense of responsibility and usefulness
    • Satisfaction from nurturing and caring roles
    • Expression of opinion
    • Cooperative experience and the practice of interdependence
    • Reasons to travel in and out of communities
    • Leadership opportunities
    • Socialization in fairs, clubs, meals and parties
                                               (Northwest Caregiver, 1998)


    "If it can be done, it is not a bad practice for a man of many years to die with a boy heart."
                        -- Carl Sandburg
    Activities and Older Adults:
    • A majority of older adults are satisfied with their lives and are seldom bored.
    • Older persons are likely to maintain their earlier level of activity  -- and often the same activities.
    • Despite changing opportunities for men and women, traditional gender roles continue to influence activity patterns.
    • In retirement older adults spend more time on each activity.
    • Planning and preparation make it more likely for retirees to have a more positive experience.
    • Older adults wish to remain independent as long as possible, and able to choose, perform and control the activities in which they participate.
    • Social class differences exist in the preferences for particular activities and the financial ability to engage in an activity.
    • While church is a more common focus of older adult activity, many perceive that church activities are more oriented to younger families and so disengage in later years.
    • Interests and participation in political activity increases with age.
    • There are ethnic differences among older adult activities. For example, African Americans are more likely to spend time in church, and Italians and Mexicans are apt to spend more time with their families, than their Scandinavian and English counterparts.


    Learning and Education

    Late life learning CAN take place!  It's never too late to learn. Attending classes may enhance skills, improve self care, expose individuals to others with similar interests, and stimulate thinking. Many persons in the work force are returning to school at varying levels for many different reasons.

    • Personal satisfaction
    • Advanced degrees
    • Research interests
    • Job advancement
    • Delayed educational opportunity
    •                                                                                              (Ebersole and Hess, 1995)
    Elder hostel

    One remarkably successful program specifically targeted to older adults is Elder hostel. The Elder hostel concept grew out of the assumption that older adults wish to continue learning. Marty Knowlton created the Elder hostel program at the University of New Hampshire in 1974. It now boasts programs at 2000 institutions in 70 countries. 

    This program offers low-cost room and board (scholarships are available in the U.S.) with non-credit curricula specific to older adults over the age of 55 years (or with a spouse over 55). It is estimated that approximately 300,000 persons participate internationally. Some of the many benefits and motivation of Elder hostel participation include:

    • Opportunity for change, something different
    • Time-limited learning
    • Low fixed cost
    • Appropriate course content
    • Absence of evaluation (no test or homework)
    • Opportunity to develop new interest or re-explore old ones
    • Travel opportunity
                                                       (Ebersole & Hess, 1995)

    Two other programs specific to older adult learning are:

    • Saddleback College, near Leisure World Laguna Hills, CA, and
    • The University of North Carolina Institute of Enrichment, Ashville, NC.
    Locating Elder hostels

    Elder hostel programs can be located in Kansas City through UMKC, or through the national Elder hostel office.

    In addition, most public and private Missouri colleges and universities offer adult degree completion programs where courses are geared more to non-traditional older students. Scheduling, curricula and faculty are oriented to support this population of students. A few such universities or colleges convenient to the Kansas City Metropolitan area include:

    Many junior colleges in the metropolitan Kansas City area offer credit and non-credit courses of interest to older adults.  Please refer to the website for more information. www.kcmetro.cc.mo.us

    • Blue Springs Community College, 1501 Jefferson, Blue Springs, MO. (816) 655-6000
    • Independence Campus of Community Colleges, 20101 E. 78 Highway, Independence, MO. (816) 220-6550
    • Longview College, 500 Longview, Lee Summit, MO. (816) 672-2000
    • Maple Woods Community College, 2601 NE Barry Road, KCMO. (816) 437-3000
    • Penn Valley Community College, 3201 Southwest Trafficway, KCMO. (816) 759-4000
    Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) programs, which offer the content, testing and credential for a high school degree, are available through the mail as well as local boards of education. Check the catalogues of your own local colleges.  Finishing any level of schooling is a noble accomplishment at any age. Remember Florence Scott who received her GED at the age of 85 years!
      Many of the County Park and Recreation organizations also offer non-credit courses of interest.

    An emerging learning project that is gaining great popularity among all ages is the pursuit of family history or genealogical study. Some persons may be interested in handing down family information and/or wish to pursue their backgrounds. The most comprehensive data base is hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, at: http://www.FamilySearch.org.

    For the National Archives and Records Administration: www.nara.gov/

    Closer to home, the Federal Genealogical Society (FGS) met in St. Louis the summer of 1999.

    The St. Louis Genealogical Society can also be accessed on the internet. 

    Two other sites for genealogy records are Ancestry.com and the Missouri Public Library Systems.

    There is no end to the variety of individual interests.  A web site that offers remarkable information is the    "Information Please Almanac" which has amassed an amazing collection of trivia which is well organized. Some topics include sports, entertainment, United States, people, business and economy, space and technology. This site has special features such as fact finding, news and a separate area for children, and it is free. Be aware that a lot of advertising, which supports this site, is part of the content.
      "Finding a way to live the simple life is today's most complicated problem."
         Jimmy Townsend, in The Virtues of Aging,
                  -- by Jimmy Carter
    The landscape has a definite impact on all of us. Changes to the sea or its coastal areas are occasions for study or observation of sea life. The mountains or the desert offer hiking opportunities -- as well as animal and plant observation. As in all other age groups, some older adults will seek higher risk taking (such as skiing, rigorous mountain climbing, and biking), while others will seek less active challenges. Some people may look for activities through their environment by camping, fishing, bird watching, nature walks, hunting and volunteerism in wildlife initiatives. Some of the many available resources for these interests may be found in the following:
  • Department of the Interior: The National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Missouri Department of Conservation: Burr Oak Woods, Blue Springs, MO (816)228-3766
  • Squaw Creek Wildlife Preserve (660)442-3187
  • The Older Americans Act has provided for senior centers which coordinate group trips, offer assistance (e.g., home delivered or congregate meals), and provide arts and teleconferencing opportunities. Older adults programs are most successful at the local level where they accommodate community and cultural needs.


    "A merry heart doeth good like medicine,
    but a broken spirit drieth up the bones."
                        -- Proverbs 17:22
    Intergenerational Activities are opening up as retirement time increases. There are several types of activities involving several generations interacting together in common purposes.  The following are a few of those available:
  • Visitor entertainment
  • Older adults assisting children with special needs (developmentally disabled in homes or institutions
  • Older adults serving at child day care setting, such as:
  • Reading to the children
  • Rocking babies and young children
  • Helping develop skills such as tying shoes

  • Adapting programs - where an older person adopts a child in need of a grandparent

    Part of successful aging is satisfaction derived from one's living arrangements, location, and housing. Since this is part of everyday living and many activities revolve around one's home, it seems natural to discuss the topic of housing under this section.

    The following information is derived from a recent publication by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research, Housing Our Elders - A Report Card on the Housing Conditions and Needs of Older Americans.

    The State of Housing of Older Americans

    (For the purposes of this report, older adults are defined as being over 62 years of age unless stated otherwise.)

    • Almost four of five older persons in America own their own home. However, after 74 years this decreases significantly. Older adults in rural America are less likely to own their homes. However, even in more vulnerable populations such as women (70%), Hispanic (60%), and African American (65%) populations, the homeownership rate is over 60%.
    • Older Americans are more settled than younger populations. Only 5% of older adults between 65 and 85 years change residences in a given year. They are more likely to settle in rural locales.
    • Most elderly persons live in single-family dwellings. However, disproportionately female and over 85 years, more than 1.5 million older adults live in nursing home and other residential care facilities.
    • Most older Americans live in older homes and almost all report that they have sufficient living space and it is generally in good condition.
    • Older frail and minority older adults are more likely to have physical problems with their housing. The problems occur most frequently in older units. Fifty percent of elderly households may not have the financial resources to repair these problems.
    Current and Future Housing Needs for Older Americans

    A Census Bureau survey found that 52% of persons over 65 years had some type of mental or physical disability. In recognition of the elderly population growth and likelihood of increasing frailty of advanced age; modifications in housing will become more necessary.

    This calls for the following:

    • More fully accessible housing in both rental and owner-occupied homes.
    • More "appropriate" housing conditions such as more flexible housing packages and supportive services to allow for aging in place.
    • Greater availability of alternatives between no assistance and nursing home care.
    • Enhanced efforts (funding and programs) to assist older adults to remain in their own homes longer
    • More affordable housing opportunities for older adults with lower incomes.
    • Improvement of the coordination among housing and social and health services

    • (U.S.Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, 1999)


    Daily activities, whether they be work, travel, religion, household or educational, usually meet a need and depend on factors such as health, location, family and time. These may represent a continuation of past interests, control, and choice in later years. Activities bring meaning and opportunity which keep older adults engaged and perhaps more likely to age more likely to age successfully. Church, outdoor, educational and intergenerational activities are activities that afford older adults newer and satisfying learning opportunities. Most of our daily activities occur where we live. This provides the positive or negative setting for successful aging. Older adults own their homes -- with adequate space in generally good condition -- and are more settled in single family dwellings. However, the frail, the "old-old", and women are at greater risk for physical problems, lack of financial resources, and nursing home placement. As with older workers, elderly housing calls for greater flexibility, alternatives between independent living and nursing home care, and greater supports for aging in place. These helps would doubtless further the chances for successful aging.


    Arthritis Foundation

    Best Health - Articles for Active Aging - Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Offers links on remaining healthy in retirement years.

    Senior World Online - offers articles and online access to resources for older adults on travel, entertainment, real estate, romance, finance, etc.

    For further relevant readings, please search:  AgeLine, AgeSearch, Thunderstone's Webinator: AgeNet Search, or Aging - Web Search.

    Gardens for Every Body - provides basic information on "HOW" to create an accessible garden, and to obtain and safely use enabling garden tools . . . either through simple modifications of existing tools, or direct purchase of ergonomic and enabling tools specially designed for those with limitations.


    Guide to Independent Living for People With Arthritis. Published by the Arthritis Foundation, 1314 Spring St., NW, Atlanta, GA 30309.



    Atchley, R. (1999). Social Forces and Aging. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

    Ebersole, P., and P. Hess (1995). Toward Healthy Aging. St. Louis, MO: The C. V. Mosby Co.

    Hazen, Teresia (1998). "Therapeutic Gardening - Plant-centered Activities Meet Sensory, Physical, and Psychosocial Needs," Northwest Caregiver. Summer issue.

    Hooyman, N.R., & H.N. Kiyak (1996). Social Gerontology: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, A Shuster and Shuster Company.

    U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research, Housing Our Elders: A Report Card on the Housing Conditions and Needs of Older Americans, 1999.


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