While most senior living communities offer an array of programs and events, activities directors often work with limited budgets and are challenged to meet their residents’ varied abilities and interests. I was fortunate to have an exceptional nursing home close to my house during my caregiving years, and my parents, my uncle, my mother-in-law and even an elderly neighbor all resided there at some point.

There were plenty of activities and events offered year-round and on holidays, but the annual summer barbecue and picnic was by far one of the most anticipated events. This nursing home featured an incredible outdoor space complete with a resident-tended vegetable garden, raised flower beds with wheelchair access, large trees, and an overhead trellis full of hanging planters and climbing vines that provided ample shade.

Every resident willing and able to enjoy this festivity was escorted outside to a comfortable location and looked after. Residents’ spouses, children and grandchildren came to enjoy this event together. For years, a resident’s husband served as the grill master, cooking up hot dogs, burgers and other barbecue favorites.

The smell of grilling meat mixed with the perfume of flowers and freshly mown grass brought back memories of easier times for many elders and their families. If ever a nursing home hosted an event where the phrase, “a good time was had by all,” was appropriate, this was it.

Creative Senior “Picnic” Ideas

Picnics and barbecues are symbolic of good times shared with others. They’re casual yet special. While these events are generally held outdoors, they don’t have to be. Not every assisted living community, memory care unit or nursing home boasts such an inviting outdoor community space, and the same can be said about many private residences. Still, it is possible to use this inspiration to come up with your own variations on a picnic that fit a loved one’s needs and living situation.

For example, my uncle loved going for car rides when the weather was cooperative. Once a week, rather than visiting him in his nursing home room as I did on other days, I’d pick him up and we’d drive around to look at flowering trees and bushes in the community. My uncle particularly enjoyed the spring crab apple blossoms that reminded him of the two decades he and my aunt had spent living out east. Later in the year, we’d drive around local college campuses and neighborhoods to enjoy the summer blooms, and later still, we’d take in the fall colors. Nearly every ride included a stop at Dairy Queen for a treat on the way back to the nursing home. Those times were our way of sharing a picnic.

My approach was a little different with my parents. They had a close-knit group of good friends they’d enjoyed for years, so after Mom and Dad both moved to the nursing home, I tried to continue some of their traditions together.

I’d reserve a small conference room at the facility so I could host pizza parties for my parents and their friends. It took some effort to get everyone together, but the staff helped. We all enjoyed the casual fun, good company and familiar food.

At other times, I’d just gather my family members and settle them in to visit with one another while I ran out to their favorite Mexican restaurant for takeout. In the dead of winter, I’d often pick up some comfort food like a barbeque chicken, potato salad and baked beans from a local deli so we could have a picnic inside.

Create Your Own Version of a Picnic

My loved ones’ facility managed to provide many special events for residents and their families, and it was fun to participate and contribute. However, providing my aging family members with their own more intimate parties and social opportunities was also important.

Those of us who are still independent usually have our own social engagements, events and seasonal activities to look forward to throughout the year. Much of that falls by the wayside once an elder moves into senior living, but family members have the ability to continue bringing excitement and variety to their routine. These efforts encourage our aging loved ones to continue feeling involved in life and give them something that is exclusively theirs to enjoy.

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If a senior can still handle a restaurant outing, a trip to your home or a park, or a ride in the car, then enjoy that for as long as you can. But if they get to a point where outings are too difficult or confusing, then take the “party” to them. All you need is knowledge of your loved one’s favorite foods and activities and a little imagination. If attending baseball games was one of your dad’s favorite pastimes, then find a way to watch one on TV together and make it an immersive experience. Wear your team’s colors, load up on classic ballpark snacks like hot dogs and popcorn, and maybe allow Dad to indulge in a beer or two if his doctor says it’s okay.

Most senior living staff members are delighted to help enrich their residents’ lives in any way they can, so don’t be afraid to ask them for tips if you have an idea you’d like to implement. Many activities directors welcome suggestions from residents and family members. They may even decide to embrace a promising idea on a larger scale so that more residents can partake.

Whatever you decide to do for your loved one’s “picnic,” just be sure to balance their need for routine and safety with an occasional burst of adventure, novelty or nostalgia that is suited to their personality and abilities. Whether it’s a whole family affair or just a get-together for the two of you, all participants will likely feel mentally refreshed after your shared good time.