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Activities for People with Dementia
Feelings of depression and little stimulation are two things that go hand-in-hand with dementia. It can be really difficult, and even outright frustrating at times, to keep your loved one engaged and happy.
Something I’ve found that really helps my Grandpa and my family cope is keeping him occupied with activities that he enjoys. I think you’ll find it pretty useful too, so here are some I’m going to share some of the things that I’ve learned along the way.
What Do I Mean By “Activities?”
When I talk about “activities,” I’m talking about fun, stimulating things that you and your loved one can do to keep them challenged, engaged and occupied. I’ve found that you can prevent a lot of conflict and frustration this way, but you must make sure that your loved one has activities that they can do on their own as well.
In this article, I’m going to give you some ideas of activities that you can introduce to your loved one to help improve their quality of life, but before we begin, there are six key principles that you need to remember:
- Make sure that you plan for your loved one to do the activity when they’re most alert. Everyone’s different, and different times of the day work for different people
- Establish a routine and stick to it as best you can! The minute I started structuring my Grandpa’s day I noticed that he felt more secure and excited because he had a general idea of what to expect from his day which made him feel “grounded”
- Try your best to make the activities functional. Instead of just coloring a picture, encourage your loved one to create and color a birthday card for someone in your family. That’ll give them a sense of purpose and a sense of achievement when they see the joy that their craft has brought to a member of your family
- Keep the activities quick and easy. We all get frustrated, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my Grandpa, people with dementia have a way shorter frustration fuse than the rest of us. Don’t do activities that are too complicated or too long. All that’ll do is make your loved one lose interest and then feel bad about their inability to complete the activity
- Focus on the activity and not the outcome. Yes, the thought of a member of your family getting a home-made birthday card from your loved one is exciting and something to look forward to, but don’t forget that your loved one needs to enjoy the craft itself. Focus on helping them cut out pictures and coloring within the lines. Praise them and help them enjoy the process so that they want to do the activity again
- Don’t break the bank! We all want our loved ones to have the best of the best, but you might just find that you don’t do certain activities because you think they’ll be too expensive. Wrong! You don’t need to fork out tons of money on special scrapbooking cardboard, stickers, colored pens and accessories to have a good time. A piece of colored paper, a pair of scissors, some crayons, and a magazine will do just fine
So, without further ado, let’s get on to the practical ideas for different activities!
It’s no secret that exercise is a necessary, beneficial part of our lives, and for your loved one it’s no different:
These exercises are great for keeping your loved one physically active and independent. You can’t go wrong with fine motor coordination exercises like sewing, knitting, cutting out pictures, and even threading bracelets.
Gross motor coordination is also important, so bouncing a ball or throwing a beach ball back and forth is a cheap and effective way to encourage your loved one to be physically active
Keep it light and simple
If your loved one isn’t in the mood to “play games” or exercise, then keep it light and simple and go for a walk instead. Just because it isn’t a strenuous, focused activity doesn’t mean that it isn’t beneficial!
Use fun props
Why would you want to just clap along with the music when you could use maracas, tambourines, and batons instead? Make everyday activities exciting by adding props. Don’t just bake, bake with a funny apron on while using brightly colored bowls and cake tins. Don’t just play “copy-cat” movement games, play “copy-cat” movement games using streamers, scarves, and silly hats!
I don’t know about you, but I hate exercise about as much as someone with a seafood allergy hates crayfish. I often have to be forced, if not outright coerced, into doing something that even remotely resembles exercise, so make sure that this isn’t the case with your loved one.
If they don’t want to exercise, then play “Simon Says.” If they don’t want to go for a walk outside, then suggest gardening instead. If you get creative, you’ll find that there’s almost always a solution to any problem
Yoga has certainly taken the world by storm in recent years, and why should your loved one have to miss out? Chair yoga is perfect for people with dementia and those with limited mobility. It’s as fun and beneficial as regular yoga, but safe and reasonable as well. Check out this short video that shows chair yoga in action
Engaging activities that make you think are important for helping slow the progression of dementia and keeping your loved one occupied:
Puzzles with large pieces
Remember, you don’t want your loved one to become frustrated, so large puzzle pieces with colorful images of scenery always work well. Sometimes puzzles with big pieces tend to look a bit “childish,” so choose the puzzle wisely and make sure your loved one doesn’t feel like they’re being made fun of
Take a trip down memory lane . . .
Reminiscing is a comforting and therapeutic activity that provides cognitive stimulation. You can look through old photo albums with your loved one and create a scrapbook. Recall fond memories together and play era-specific music. I guarantee that listening to music when they were “young and vivacious” is bound to put a smile on your loved one’s face
Word guessing games
Who doesn’t enjoy a good game of charades? If you think that your loved one is up for the challenge, then play an easy game of charades to pass the time. You could even put on a song and see if they can identify its name or the artist who sings it.
I’ve cut out pictures of well-known figures and celebrities and have played a “guess who” game with my Grandpa by giving him details about the person and seeing if he can figure out who they are. Though I show him the picture or tell him the answer the minute I see he starts to become frustrated!. I want him to love the activity and not become resentful of it
Graded memory games
Put familiar objects in a bag and get your loved one to feel around for an object. They have to keep their hand in the bag and try and guess the object based on what they feel. Common objects like kitchen utensils, keys, pens, buttons, glasses, and even necklaces are great examples of what you can put in your bag.
If your loved one becomes overwhelmed with so many objects being in the bag at one time, simply individually place them inside the bag help your loved one by providing them with clues
“Messiness” isn’t just for children. Most of what we learn about the world around us is through our five senses, so it’s important to keep your loved one’s senses activated as far as possible:
There’s a reason why artistic therapies are so popular – they work! You know your loved one better than anyone else, so help choose a creative activity that they can participate in. Art therapy, music therapy, and even drama therapy are popular choices for helping people with dementia modulate their behavior through creativity and self-expression
Boring, traditional gardening is out, and practical sensory gardening is in! Help your loved one plant and care for scented and edible plants while using magnifying glass screens. You can also get them to help you decorate and sculpt handrails while setting up water features that they can hear and touch. Science has proven that time outside is time well spent, so encourage it as far as you can!
Use your hands!
Modeling with play-doh or clay is a great example of a calming activity that has both sensory and cognitive benefits. Sensory bean bags are also fun, and stroking the fur of pets (if allowed) is certainly encouraged! Try finger painting and help your loved one “get down and dirty” when baking. Let them mix the ingredients and roll out the dough by hand
Caring for a doll
This one’s a little bit controversial. Studies have shown that “doll therapy” improves the comfort, engagement, and quality of life of people with dementia, but a lot of people don’t agree. I was very skeptical when my Grandpa was first given his doll, but he had been giving us such grief with his behavior that I was willing to try anything that wasn’t more medication. Honestly, I was shocked at the results. I didn’t think my Grandpa would take the doll at all, but he was engaged from the moment we handed it to him, and I’m glad we made the decision to give it a try.
But a lot of people feel doll therapy takes away the dignity of people with dementia, and some family members just aren’t comfortable with the idea because they think it’s misleading.
I think the key take away is that you should follow the lead of your loved one and be flexible when introducing the doll. Do some research if you still aren’t sure, and check out this article by Esther Heerema to get you started
It’s totally ok if you feel overwhelmed after reading this article. There’s A LOT of information to take in, and I suggest introducing activities slowly and one at a time. Remember, not all of these activities are going to work for your loved one, and that’s fine! The point is to figure out which activities work and adapt to the ones that don’t.
When helping your loved one, please always keep what THEY need in mind. I get it, watching my Grandpa build the same puzzle over and over and over again isn’t exactly what I’d call fun, but at the end of the day, this isn’t about me. This is about my Grandpa and what HE needs to live a happy and fulfilled life.
Sure, I’m going to keep introducing new things to him and encourage him to try different activities every other day, but if he doesn’t enjoy them or they make him feel uncomfortable or upset, then I’ll just keep watching him build his puzzle and find joy in the smile that it puts on his face.