You know those times when you ask Grandma what she needs, and she says, “Oh, nothing, Honey.”
Don’t believe her.
She has the same needs that you do.
What are her needs?
1. Feeling Wanted:
Pull Out the Welcome Mat
Grandma spent years doing for others, and now she has to let others do things for her. The more that happens, the more she might feel like she’s in the way.
No one likes that feeling.
Unfortunately, you might be overwhelmed yourself, especially if you’re in the middle of that sandwich generation: taking care of your own kids while you’re taking care of Grandma.
What can you do?
Smile. When you’re with her, slow down. Laugh. Tell her about something that happened with the kids.
If you’re abrupt and in a rush, she’ll feel like a burden, just another chore on your plate. But if you smile like you mean it, you’ll let her know she’s cherished and you’re glad to be with her.
2. Feeling Needed:
You Know What They Say about Idle Hands
Beyond feeling welcome, Grandma also wants to be useful. To know she hasn’t outlived her purpose.
If she equates her value with things she can no longer do, depression can hit hard.
Help her see all that she can still do.
- Find out more about her life experiences and ask her for advice.
- Don’t be too quick to stop her from doing what she can do. Yes, she could sit at the table and put her feet up while you make dinner—in fact, you may think you’re honoring her by encouraging that. But if she’s up to standing and helping, let her. It helps her be a part of life and keeps her moving. (That whole “object in motion stays in motion” thing.)
- If movement is hard, find small things for her to do (organize buttons, organize pictures).
As even those things become hard, let her know how much being able to talk to her helps you. (Just ask anyone who’s lost their mother how many times they think of calling to share their day…but can’t.)
In It Shoulder-to-Shoulder
Friends aren’t just for kids.
Grandma needs her own special gang. Or at least a kindred spirit. Someone to hang out with. To share life.
You know where this is going: The problem is, Grandma’s friends may have passed on. She may be a widow. Perhaps, in moving closer to you so you could help take care of her, she had to leave her posse behind.
- Introduce someone to her from church or from the neighborhood. Invite them over and let her host a tea.
- If she’s in assisted living, encourage her to get to know the other residents or invite someone from outside to visit her with you.
- Don’t feel like you have to limit this companionship to someone her own age. That’s great if they are, but you could also find a young mother who doesn’t have a grandmother around: Preschoolers are great for reminding seniors how good it is to be alive. Or find a college student who’s missing home and would welcome some “Grandma hugs.”
And amid all your hustle and bustle to help her, sometimes just sit and hold her hand. You can remind her of funny things that happened when you were little, or you can just sit and be. The shared companionship will do a lot to help you both.
4. Talked WITH (not to or about):
e.g. Dump that Royal “We”
Sometimes you can’t sit around. There are things to do, places to go…and much of that means you need to give Grandma instructions. Time to take a bath, time to eat, time to get dressed.
But be careful how you do that talking.
You might have to speak louder, slower, or simpler. But don’t speak to her like a child.
- Even if she can’t answer back, talk with her as if she could. Give her respect. Talk with her like you want someone to talk with you.
- And get rid of that patronizing royal “We.” You know the one I mean: those fingers-on-the-chalkboard questions like “How are we today?” When someone says it to you, you bite back all those snarky comebacks, right? Don’t put Grandma on the receiving end of it.
Your respectful tone will go a long way to helping her feel wanted, needed, and enjoying your companionship.
5. In Control of Her Life:
“Got No Strings on Me”
If you’ve ever been stuck in a wheelchair, needing others to move you, you understand the frustration—It seems fun at first, not having to walk, just pushed wherever you need to go.
But you quickly realize how dependent you are: they say how fast, how slow, where, and when.
Talk about humbling.
You have to trust they won’t run you into a wall. Or leave you in the center of a crowded room while they get lost in their other friendships.
Does Grandma feel stuck there? In a wheelchair? In daily life?
It reminds me of the sad Bible verse, John 21:18 “When you were young, you dressed yourself and walked where you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
Help prevent that loss.
Wherever possible, let her have a say in choices that affect her.
- If you’re looking at assisted living, take her on tours. Talk through her feelings.
- Give her options for clothing, food, activities. You don’t have to lay out five or six selections. That might overwhelm her. But offering two possibilities keeps her active in her own life.
- And watch out for those walls. If she’s able, let her suggest a speed limit for her wheels.
6. Safe (not stifled):
Calm and Collected with a Good Dose of Delight
One of our most basic emotional needs is safety. It’s hard to think of anything else if we feel threatened.
So if Grandma seems uneasy, take time to figure out why.
- Is she afraid she’s going to fall?
- Is she upset about being alone?
- Is she edgy or downright perturbed around someone?
Ask yourself why.
That someone may really be harmless, but if Grandma doesn’t feel safe,
- Is his body language saying something he doesn’t realize?
- Could it be he looks like someone else who wasn’t so innocent?
- Has dementia struck so Grandma doesn’t remember someone she’s known forever? If it’s Grandpa, that’s especially hard. But have him talk about how he knows her husband. It may make her comfortable enough to remember who he is. (Check out this heartwarming video on how it worked with a daughter and her mother.)
Is Grandma scared of mirrors? They could be reflecting a face she doesn’t recognize because Alzheimer’s has her stuck at a younger age like her 20s. Try covering the mirror to see if she feels more confident.
Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of mixing up “safe” with “stifling.”
Yes, there could be many dangers in the world, but being an adult means taking small risks here and there so Grandma can continue to flourish. Weigh the ventures with her and encourage her to step out of her comfort zone for things she would probably really enjoy.
Some things are STILL for Her Eyes Only
With all the doctors’ appointments and help needed with daily living, it can feel like Grandma has no privacy.
Look for simple ways to give her back this dignity.
- If she needs help with her bath, cover her with a towel and wash under it.
- Limit who helps her get dressed.
- Be sure she’s okay with your sharing her medical needs before you tell her friends and other family members.
- If you need to speak louder for her to hear, try to hold sensitive conversations at home or in less occupied areas where there won’t be as many unwitting eavesdroppers.
Look for ways to preserve her confidentiality wherever possible.
8. Spurred on Intellectually:
There’s a reason so many senior citizens sit around talking politics and current events. It keeps their brains firing, which in turn keeps them emotionally healthy.
Other ideas for keeping those brain cells stimulated?
- Word puzzles, sudoku
- Computer programs that let you create music, art, and other computer programs. (Don’t buy into the belief that says they can’t learn them. It was their generation that started inventing them.)
- Record them telling you about things they’ve created, like how to sand a dresser perfectly.
(Proof it works? Louie Zamperini, lost for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific, recalled recipes back and forth with his raftmate, detailing exactly how their moms made them. Louie credited that exercise with keeping their minds sharp amidst heat exhaustion and lack of food and water.)
That 7th Inning Stretch Isn’t Just for Baseball Anymore
Exercise is good for the body. But it’s also good for emotions. There’s nothing like a good stretch, fresh air, a walk, and some sun to improve your thoughts.
In fact, while we’ve heard a lot about eating certain foods and doing crossword puzzles to stave off Alzheimer’s, studies have shown that in that mental fight, exercise is just as important.
Besides, tight weak muscles create pain, and pain encourages depression. So you can’t go wrong with some physician-approved workouts, maybe something as simple as a stroll around the block.
- If Grandma needs a walker? Make it a family dance party. Throw on some music, support her on each side and behind, and sway to the rhythms.
- If she’s in a wheelchair? Do a waltz while you push her around. Or create a one of a kind dance line like these nurses did with their patients.
You’ll both be laughing in no time because exercise meets so many emotional needs.
The Art of the Bear Hug
From the time we’re born, we need human touch. Without it, children struggle with relationships and often brawl with those around them.
The need for touch doesn’t go away just because you grow up.
In fact, experts say it
- expands trust
- supports positive thoughts
- releases stress
- boosts the immune system
- lowers blood pressure
All great benefits for Grandma.
But if she seems frail, you might be afraid you could hurt her. So what’s helpful?
- Hold her hand, massage her shoulders, or simply place gentle pressure with your palm on her back.
- Run your fingers through her hair and rub her scalp.
- Sit with your arm around her waist.
- Lay your head on her shoulder or next to her cheek.
- And don’t forget a good old-fashioned hug. We’re not talking about rib-crushing, but a firm “don’t want to let go” clinch.
Now the warning: Any touch needs to feel safe.
Grandma might not want strangers touching her hand. That means real outsiders and people she can’t remember today.
If she was a hugger before, she might want to meet new and old alike with an embrace. But if she pulls away from someone, let her. Physical touch should help relieve stress, not build it.
Doing It All with Compassion (not Pity):
Translating the Heart’s Vernacular
You’ve read all ten emotional needs, but there’s one more that wraps them all together.
Understand that this growing older isn’t easy, especially when Grandma is letting go of people, hobbies, talents, and memories that she has spent a lifetime loving.
She doesn’t want your pity. That just makes her feel even worse.
But let your heart listen to hers. And empathize. Because she has the same needs as you.
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.