You may think of diseases like Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis as the age-related conditions you should worry about as you get older, but other seemingly innocuous developments are also worth an ounce of prevention. Degeneration of what are known as “fine motor skills” often accompanies aging; in fact, a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that older age is directly related to worse fine motor skills.

What does this mean for older adults? Well, the very ability to dress and feed yourself, as well as do things like turn door knobs, hold a pen to write, and even pinch and grab things relies on the coordination and movement of small tendons and muscles in the hand. Those fine motor skills can mean the difference between living independently or requiring extra care as you age.

Why Do Seniors Lose Fine Motor Skills?

While fine motor skills are ingrained in people at a very young age, over the decades into your 60s, 70s, and 80s, cognitive deficits develop which affect them. The degeneration of critical players in the brain like the neurotransmitter, neuromuscular, sensorimotor control and functioning, and central and peripheral nervous systems impacts everything from memory to gait and fine motor coordination. More specifically, when neurons can no longer communicate successfully to send messages to other parts of the brain and the body, seniors begin to lose functions like fine motor skills.

An older adult might develop small tremors, lose dexterity and strength, and even experience some neuropathy. These symptoms may not even be associated with any particular condition, however, with 4 out of 5 seniors having at least one chronic condition, health status may also affect fine motor skills. For example, stroke, osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis can all contribute to a much faster degeneration of fine motor skills simply because of the nature of the disease.

Exercising Fine Motor Skills in Seniors

So how can older adults exercise their fine motor skills to keep them strong and sharp? Experts recommend focusing on activities which require seniors to:

  • Coordinate hand-eye movement

  • Promote bilateral integration (using two hands together)

  • Employ hand division (using some fingers at a time and not others)

  • Skillfully manipulate tools like scissors, a toothbrush, remote, etc.

  • Cross the midline, or recognize the imaginary line that divides the body in half (left and right sides)

  • Control movement that requires brain feedback from the muscles and joints

  • Hold the hands and fingers strong against an opposing force

While routine exercise like cycling, yoga, hiking, swimming, tennis, and dancing is always a great idea for seniors, fine motor activities involve more concentrated work with the hands. Check out these 28 fun ideas:

  1. Knit or crochet

  2. Color

  3. Play with therapy putty

  4. Pinch and un-pinch clothespins on a line

  5. Pick up small objects like marbles or pencils (and then pick them up with tweezers)

  6. Play games like Jenga and Jacks

  7. Do puzzles

  8. Put pegs in a pegboard

  9. Turn knobs (on doors, faucets, etc.)

  10. Practice buttoning and unbuttoning clothes

  11. Move small amounts of liquid (with a spoon, eye dropper, etc).

  12. Dig and plant seeds in a garden

  13. Put a series of beads on a string

  14. Move beans from one bowl to another

  15. Squeeze a stress ball

  16. Open cabinets and doors

  17. Practice an instrument like guitar or dulcimer

  18. Sort jewelry

  19. Stretch fingers with rubber bands

  20. Squeeze water out of a washcloth or sponge

  21. Thread a belt through pant loops and latch it

  22. Open a padlock with a key

  23. Craft with small materials like pipe cleaners, buttons, jewels, etc.

  24. Toss a ball with a partner

  25. Press small buttons (on a remote, phone, etc.)

  26. Use tools to practice placing screws, nails, and so forth

  27. Stack pennies

  28. Try finger painting

Whether you’re rehabilitating from a stroke, or simply looking to retain as many fine motor skills as possible as you age, the key to fine motor activities is to practice them regularly. The idea is that with regular practice, you’ll both rewire as well as strengthen the communication pathways between neurons, reinforcing neuroplasticity and even potentially protecting against cognitive decline in the future.