Helping Seniors Build Healthy Habits

It’s never too late to make a healthy change in your lifestyle. If you work with older clients, you know that helping seniors build healthy habits can help them have a comfortable and happy lifestyle.

Building and changing our routines and habits can be tricky for anyone! And as we get older, it can be even harder to change the habits that we’re used to. When we’ve done something every day for years, it can take a lot of practice and encouragement to change that habit. Therefore, it’s important to approach habits realistically and set manageable goals.

Healthy habits for seniors

It can feel overwhelming to build new habits, as if you’re overhauling your whole lifestyle. And trying to change your habits too quickly is usually a recipe for disappointment. It’s important to prioritize which habits should be approached first and build them gradually.

Some habits that seniors may want to focus on include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Exercising cognitive skills
  • Getting physical exercise
  • Socializing
  • Cleaning and organizing
  • Eating healthy
  • Going outside
  • Taking medications
  • Picking up a hobby

If the patient has many habits that they would like to work on, it’s best to just pick a couple of things to focus on first. This can help to avoid overwhelm and make small achievements feel exciting – which makes keeping up with habits easier!

How to approach building healthy habits

Before a behavior can become a habit, it must first become a routine. According to Kurt Nelson, Ph.D., there is an important distinction between habit and routine. Routines involve conscious effort to complete, whereas habits are so ingrained into our daily lives that they are basically involuntary. Most people have ingrained habits that they don’t need to think about, such as brushing their teeth every morning or watching their favorite tv show in the evening. The trick is to practice a routine enough that it becomes ingrained. Here are a few ways to help your patient accomplish this:

Start slowly

The patient will need to start with a conscious routine before they can form a habit. The issue is that routines can take a lot of work to maintain. Introducing a big change or many changes into their life at once can be overwhelming, so start with small, slow changes.

Reflect on why

Encourage the patient to reflect on why they want to make a change. This is a great way to build motivation to start new routines. Then they can keep their reasons in mind when forming a habit becomes difficult. For example, if the patient wants to get exercise with the goal of living a longer life, they can keep this end goal in mind. This is a good way to build intrinsic motivation, which makes you much more likely to succeed in forming a habit!

Get reminders

Setting an alarm for when they want to complete a new routine every day can help your patient stick to their plan. They can also get reminders from another person. For example, the patient could ask a family member to remind them to work on cognitive skills each day at a specific time.

Schedule it in a calendar 

Similar to setting reminders, the patient can also schedule time to work on their new habit in a calendar. This could be a physical calendar or a digital one – whatever the patient is more comfortable with. If they put the routine in a calendar, it’s an extra way to hold themselves accountable for taking the steps to build a new habit.

Create milestones 

Set small goals with your patient concerning the new habit. Try setting SMART goals to help them achieve smaller goals along the way. For example, if the goal is to eventually form a habit of exercisingfor 30 minutes a day, they could start with a smaller goal, like exercising for 10 minutes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday for 3 weeks. Once they reach that milestone, you can help them set new SMART goals to slowly increase their time exercising.

Celebrate when you reach milestones 

Smoking one less cigarette per day or exercising once a week when you didn’t use to exercise at all, is absolutely worth celebrating! We can’t completely overhaul our habits in a day, so we need to learn to celebrate small milestones. This helps to build motivation and slowly form a sustainable habit that the patient can stick to.

Forgive slip-ups

Change is really difficult, regardless of your age or cognitive abilities. Don’t let your patient beat themselves up if forming a new habit is hard. (Spoiler alert: It will probably be hard!)  Negative self-talk will only lead to them disengaging from the new habit. If they find yourself slipping back into old habits that they want to change, they simply need to try again, perhaps with smaller goals. Stay positive and relax.


Forming new healthy habits can be difficult for anyone, but may be especially hard for seniors who have had the same habits for many years. By starting slowly and following the tips listed above, your patient can slowly form sustainable habits that give them a healthier life.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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