Why I Used a Sticker Chart to Motivate My Mom to Move

There's this hopeful part of me that imagines her embracing her new exercise routine, doing more and more laps each day, getting so strong that she's even able to cast her walker aside in favor of a cane.
04/08/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


"I picked out a basketball sticker today!" my mom told me on the phone.

I was relieved and, frankly, surprised that she was actually cooperating and using the sticker reward chart that we made for her to keep track of her exercise.

The idea came to me after my middle daughter ignored our family edict to never ever under any circumstance open the overstuffed art cabinet. As I cleaned up the damage, I found in the pile of craft debris a partially completed sticker chart, one I had made for my youngest to help her lick some nasty habit. That's when it occurred to me that sticker rewards might be the perfect tool to motivate my 86-year-old mother.

For the past few months my mom had been feeling weak and tired yet repeatedly resisted our requests to exercise. But recently, things had gotten worse. She couldn't be prompted to do much of anything, and she would often fall back to sleep right after breakfast, again after lunch and then soon after dinner.

She seemed less engaged in conversations, and it was almost as if she had given up and planned on sleeping the rest of her life away. After a particularly bad day, one of the two ladies who alternate as her in-home companions became concerned. She called us, and then the doctor.

My mom's cardiologist was not happy. He said that my normally thin mom had gained too much weight and that her sedentary lifestyle had to change. She needed to get up and start moving, now.

My sisters and I had been telling her that for years. I'm pretty sure the last time my mom purposely engaged in exercise was when she took tennis lessons with a friend from church. I believe that was in the spring of 1975.

When my dad was still alive, my mom was at least a bit more active, because he needed care as his fibrosis worsened. But a year or two after he passed, my mom's dizziness and arthritis got so bad that my siblings and I realized she needed help in the home.

Luckily, she was financially able to afford "helpers," as she likes to calls them, but their help came with a downside. As time went by, these lovely ladies started doing more and more things for my mom, and consequently, she had little motivation to move.

But after hearing from the cardiologist, my sisters and I laid down the law. We told my mom that she needed to eat like she did back when my dad was alive -- on healthy salmon and steamed vegetables -- and ditch the enchiladas and quiches she's recently grown to love.

She reluctantly agreed. Unfortunately, getting her to eat more healthily would be a challenge, since she'd developed some nutty ideas about nutrition of late. It seemed she thought brown sugar was the healthy sugar, and that she was being "good" by simply holding the avocado on her BLT. "You need to hold the bacon too," my sister advised.

More importantly, my mom needed to get moving, so we told her to start by doing laps around the house. But I worried that, like me, my mom would find a million reasons to let the day pass without exercising. So when I saw that old sticker chart I realized that it could be the perfect way for her, and us, to keep track.

My 10-year-old daughter and I dug into the forbidden art cabinet and found a poster and packs of stickers. She crafted a chart and together we delivered it to my mom.

I hoped that because it came from her youngest grandchild, the chart would have more impact, and fortunately it did. When I called a few days later, my mom said that she had been doing her laps and even sounded like she was having fun. She liked picking out the stickers and commented how sweet it was that her grandchild had made such a clever thing.

Of course I know that reducing a few calories and walking a few laps around her house isn't going to result in a wholesale change. But my mom does have a history of bouncing back, so I think she's a fighter of sorts. Just a couple years ago she became horribly sick with encephalitis. She had seizures, forgot how to eat, and didn't even recognize us for days, yet somehow she surprised her doctors and pulled through.

So there's this hopeful part of me that imagines her embracing her new exercise routine, doing more and more laps each day, getting so strong that she's even able to cast her walker aside in favor of a cane.

Then maybe, because she's feeling so good, she'll become like her old self again; quick with the witty comeback and master of the subtle dig. We'll laugh on the phone like we used to, until she makes a jab about my work, like reminding me that it's not too late to get a real job with the phone company because they have health benefits. Afterwards, I'll be so frustrated I'll have to call my sister to complain.

I know. I'm asking a lot from a simple sticker chart.

Because more likely human nature will win out, and my mom's interest in her new exercise regimen will quickly wane. Then one day, sooner than I'd like, that chart will be tucked away for good in one of her overstuffed cupboards, shoved on top of old coupons and torn out recipes that were never made.

But if I'm lucky, those stickers will get her back up and engaged in life again, at least for a while. If I'm lucky, those stickers will stall off the inevitable, and give us, and her, a little more time.