Dementia caregivers often struggle to come up with activities that their loved ones want to participate in and that fit their ever-changing abilities. Keeping a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia entertained and engaged can be difficult, but it is crucial for their physical and emotional wellbeing. A few simple guidelines and a touch of creativity can help simplify this process.
Tips for Finding Activities to Do with Dementia Patients
- Consider the person’s interests.
The best place to start when brainstorming activities that your loved one might enjoy is taking inventory of their past and current interests and hobbies. Examples might include gardening, crafting, playing or watching sports, cooking, reading about historical events, fishing, photography, or listening to or playing certain types of music. Once you’ve made a list of potential ideas, it’s time to get creative.
Hobbies often fall by the wayside when a senior experiences increasing physical and/or mental challenges. Beth Kallmyer, former Director of Family and Information Services for the Alzheimer’s Association, recommends adjusting these pastimes to fit their abilities. Providing additional assistance and supervision is often necessary with dementia patients, but as their condition progresses, adapting the activities themselves is also required.
For example, your mom may slowly lose her ability to garden independently in the yard. She may be able to carry on for a while with your help and direction, but eventually designing the plant beds and working the earth will become too difficult for her. At that point, you can bring a few pots with seeds and other house plants inside for her to water and tend to daily. If she begins to forget to care for her plants, then she may enjoy outings to a local botanical garden or park and looking at pictures of beautiful flowers or plantings she did years before.
- Reestablish old routines.
Many people derive a sense of purpose from the daily routines that they create. Abilities and routines change with age and seniors often find themselves feeling somewhat directionless after spending decades devoted to work and family. Establishing a daily routine for a loved one early on can restore some order in their life and help them feel more secure. Seniors with dementia thrive on familiarity and repetition, so adding structure to their day can minimize confusion some. Keep in mind that, as they slowly lose the ability to plan, initiate and complete even minor activities, this likely means you’ll have to provide additional prompting and guidance. Incorporating life-long habits or pastimes, such as drinking coffee on the porch every morning, enjoying a mid-afternoon nap or watching the news in the evenings is an excellent idea as well. Remember, activities don’t necessarily have to be organized or fancy to keep a senior content and engaged.
- Provide opportunities for social interaction.
Even though your care recipient’s cognitive and/or physical abilities have declined, they still need to interact with others regularly. “Humans have a basic need for social connectedness and those with Alzheimer’s disease are no different, regardless of what stage of the disease they are in,” explains Kallmyer.
Seniors can have valuable social experiences both inside and outside the home with friends, extended family and the public. Having their grandchildren come over for a visit, asking a mutual friend to take them out to lunch, and even bringing your loved one along on errands can be wholesome ways to provide a change of company and scenery. However, be careful not to overdo it. All dementia patients are unique, but many tend to feel anxious and even become agitated in situations where larger crowds and lots of activity and noise are present. Keep this in mind when planning an outing or social call. For example, if you’re bringing Dad along to the grocery store or taking him out to eat, make sure to go at less busy times.
It can be difficult, but try not to worry about how others may react should your loved one have an outburst. If they are consistently disruptive in public, then adult day care for seniors with dementia may be a good option. Adult day care centers provide activities and social opportunities in a secure, supervised setting. The staff are trained to handle the quirks and challenges that dementia brings and your loved one will be able to interact with their peers and engage in activities that match their abilities. An added plus is that you are able to enjoy some respite!
- Engage in physical exercise.
It can be difficult for seniors to continue engaging in physical activity as their mobility levels change and cognitive issues prevent them from adapting their routines. According to Kallmyer, elders with dementia often begin to wander because they are not getting enough exercise. Daily walks are an excellent way for a senior with dementia to get some fresh air and maintain their mobility. Even gentle physical activity can help reduce agitation and improve how your loved one sleeps at night. If the weather isn’t conducive to outside activities like walking, consider taking a stroll around the local indoor mall or trying gentle exercise programs like seated yoga.
- Find meaning, even in the mundane.
Try to make activities meaningful, rather than choosing ones aimed at simply passing time. Even though your parent may not remember different activities they do, try to encourage hobbies that they seem to enjoy in the moment. While folding laundry or snapping green beans for dinner may not seem exciting to you, many dementia patients find a sense of purpose in these simple activities. When they believe they are making a valuable contribution, it adds to their general happiness and helps them feel more grounded.
Handling a Reluctant or Resistant Elder
A major concern for dementia caregivers is that their loved ones often become withdrawn and resistant to participating in any activities at some point. In these situations, it is important to do some creative probem-solving. Elders often push back against their family members’ ideas because they feel they’re being told what to do and wish to exert some control over their daily life. Sometimes the solution is as simple as recruiting a new or different person to initiate and participate in activities with your loved one. Friends, extended family and even paid companions can help draw a resistant senior out of their shell.
Another source of frustration is when an elder complains of boredom yet shows little interest in a caregiver’s ideas for shaking things up. With dementia, seniors often lose their sense of initiative when it comes to beginning and completing tasks or activities. In some cases, the caregiver may have to provide clear direction and supervision to get their loved one involved in something they truly enjoy but were inexplicably opposed to doing before.
It’s important to understand that agitation, anxiety and/or depression can also prevent a senior with dementia from fully engaging in life. Consider taking your loved one for a check-up to rule out a mood disorder that may be treatable with medication. Many patients benefit from a low-dose anti-depressant at some point during the course of the disease.
On the other hand, some seniors simply have never been all that active or social. If they gripe about being bored and vehemently refuse to participate in anything, it’s likely because their favorite pastime is complaining itself. This can be both heartbreaking and annoying for caregivers who feel powerless to enrich their loved ones’ lives. But at some point, you must realize that you alone are not responsible for their happiness. It is impossible to force someone do something they don’t want to do.
If you provide enriching activities and valuable social interaction and are still met with resistance, then you’ve done your best. However, a senior’s attitude and behavior may change throughout the course of the disease. Don’t hesitate to repeat the same offers every now and then. You might be surprised one day when your loved one takes you up on a car ride to get some ice cream.