“Dementia resembles delirium in the same way an ultra-marathon resembles a dash across the street. Same basic components, vastly different scale. If you’ve run delirium’s course once or twice in your life, try to imagine a version that never ends.”-Floyd Skloot
As a registered nurse with many years of experience working with dementia patients, I understand how difficult it can be to care for a loved one with dementia. Dementia is used as an umbrella term for the progressive loss of cognitive ability. The ability to think, remember and make decisions all becomes impaired. The slow mental decline impairs everyday daily tasks and isolates the individual, and because of this, they may suffer severe anxiety and depression. The good news is you can do many simple activities to help combat boredom, improve mood, and hopefully slow the progression of symptoms.
Find out their favorite activities to do and make time for them. The key is to start with what brings them joy and go from there. These interactive and enjoyable activities help keep the mind and body active, but most of all, they provide support and shows that you care. So, grab some supplies, turn on some music, and get ready for some fun with your loved one. You’ll both appreciate the time spent together. Here are some suggestions to do with your loved ones:
Arts and Crafts
Arts and crafts or games are excellent ways to activate the mind and boost cognition in dementia patients. Activities like coloring, painting, drawing, or crafting with clay and beads can be enjoyable and help with hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Provide large images or stencils for coloring and painting and keep the mess to a minimum by using easily washable products or working outside. Craft kits for making things, like simple quilts or knitting, are other options. Always supervise and assist as needed.
Board Games and Puzzles
Puzzles like large-piece jigsaw puzzles with lots of colors are ideal. Simple board games like checkers, dominoes, or card games can also work well. Provide guidance and help them play. Look for puzzles and games designed for children or labeled “easy,” as these tend to have big pieces and simple rules. Use books with large grids and bigger prints, such as Crossword or Sudoku. Play memory games such as matching cards or tile games. Doing simple stacking games with large blocks, like Legos, or playing with fidget toys provide sensory stimulation and encourage social interaction, shape recognition, and problem-solving skills.
Lean towards choosing something they used to enjoy or could be good at. With patience and supervision, engaging dementia patients in arts, crafts, puzzles, and games can stimulate their minds, enhance skills, and promote social interaction and bonding.
Singing and Music
Singing songs from the past or playing familiar instruments is also an engaging activity for dementia patients. As memories fade, music is often still recognized and enjoyed. Try music therapy, where you play or sing songs popular from your loved one’s youth or join them to play an instrument they once loved. Singing along stimulates memories and conversations, providing joy and comfort.
Playing upbeat music and dancing together provides physical activity and stimulation, and rhythmic movements can be soothing. Even if your loved one is confined to a wheelchair or bed, you can still sway together to the music. If they don’t like loud sounds, playing soft instrumentals, nature sounds can have a calming, relaxing effect. Music therapy utilizes music’s ability to trigger memories and emotions. Sit together, hold hands, and let the music soothe you. Calming music is especially helpful when they’re in an anxious mood or before bedtime to help induce sleep.
If your loved one used to play instruments, sit them down at the old piano and help them play or provide simple percussion instruments like tambourines, maracas, bells, or xylophones that they can shake, hit, or tap. This might jog their music memory and provides sensory stimulation. Don’t worry about keeping a beat, just have fun. Music is a universal language that enables us to connect with dementia patients on an emotional level. Try different genres and songs from various eras to find what your loved one responds to. Most importantly, make it a shared experience—sing, dance, play, or listen together. The power of music to stimulate memories and bring joy to dementia patients is truly magical.
As a dementia patient’s memory declines, sensory activities become increasingly important. Memories are not made of moments alone. Taste, smell, touch, and sound are all powerful tools that can help provide moments of clarity and lucidity. Reminiscence therapy is an excellent way to achieve such moments.
Reminiscence therapy involves sharing stories and memories with your loved one. This can help jog their memory and stimulate positive emotions and connections from the past. Some reminiscent ideas include watching old home videos, sharing details about past vacations or holidays, and talking about friends and family members from years ago. In addition to listening to old music, cooking or baking a favorite treat from the past or telling funny stories/reading entries from their old journal are also great ideas. The smells, tastes, sights, and sounds will be very nostalgic, and sharing happy memories can help lift moods and encourage reminiscence.
Even for those with more advanced dementia, photo albums can be engaging and help tap into long-term memories. Look through photos together and talk about the people, places, and events in the pictures. Your loved one may recognize and remember more than you expect. Choose large, high-quality photos of family, friends, vacations, weddings, etc. The more details, the better. Remember to go slowly and be patient, allowing time for your loved one to process each photo. Give them space to share memories or stories. Ask open-ended questions about the photos to gently prompt recollections but avoid quizzing them and pushing too hard if they struggle. Keep the mood light and casual.
Sensory activities like these, especially with family members, can help lift the mood, ease distressing symptoms, and foster closeness during this difficult time. While dementia will continue to progress, reminiscence therapy and photo sharing are ways to stimulate your loved one’s mind and stay connected to good memories. This activity is as meaningful for you as it is for them. It helps remind you of who they once were, offering comfort.
Keeping loved ones physically active is just as important, and the benefits of gentle exercises are endless. You could choose anything you know your loved one would enjoy or try something new. Activities like dancing, walking, and reminiscing are great places to begin. If you are unsure where to start, I highly recommend trying yoga. Yoga is an excellent form of exercise that can be modified for different ability levels.
For dementia patients, keep things very simple. Focus on basic movements and stretches and avoid fast transitions between poses. Some good options include:
- Seated twists: Slowly twist your torso side to side to gently stretch your spine and core muscles.
- Shoulder rolls: Roll your shoulders slowly forward and backward in circles to loosen the joints and muscles.
- Neck stretches: Slowly tilt your head side to side or look over one shoulder and then the other. You can also do gentle neck stretches by dropping your chin to your chest and lifting your head back up again.
- Seated leg extensions: Extend one leg at a time while seated, flexing and pointing your toes. This helps loosen the hip and leg joints.
- Deep breathing: Take slow, deep breaths to provide extra oxygen to the body and brain. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
Short, frequent sessions of 5 to 10 minutes a few times a week can provide tremendous benefits. Be patient and encouraging, and stop to take breaks if necessary. Provide verbal cues to help guide their movements. Watch them closely to prevent injuries. Most importantly, keep things relaxed and fun.
While dementia is a heartbreaking disease, focusing on the positive and keeping your loved one engaged. This can help slow the progression and maintain quality of life. By trying different activities, you’ll discover what they respond to best. Although the road ahead may be difficult, cherish the good moments and the time you have together. Remember to be patient and present, shower them with love, and make the activities fun. This way, you will find ways to brighten both of your days. Stay strong and remember that every moment matters.