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Dementia activities for your loved one

25 August 2015 / by / 2 comments

Dementia activities for your loved one

Six options to encour­age engagement.

BY: Ann Napoletan


As demen­tia pro­gresses, it becomes chal­leng­ing to find activ­i­ties that encour­age men­tal, emo­tional and sen­sory stim­u­la­tion. At the same time, we are often in search of ways to con­nect with our loved one when con­ver­sa­tion is no longer an option. Pos­si­bil­i­ties are as wide and var­ied as one’s imag­i­na­tion, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Pho­tographs & pic­ture books

My mom, who had Alzheimer’s, delighted in look­ing at pho­tos, so I always kept a scrap­book and some photo albums on hand. Later, I added a dig­i­tal frame that con­tin­u­ally scrolled through favourite pho­tographs. Those pic­tures inspired count­less smiles, and I have fond mem­o­ries of sit­ting next to her on the sofa flip­ping through the books. It’s impos­si­ble to know whether she recog­nised the peo­ple in the pic­tures – or whether they trig­gered any mem­o­ries, but I do know they brought her joy in those moments, and that was the impor­tant thing.

Cof­fee table books full of large colour­ful images are another excel­lent option. Think about some of your loved one’s favourite things, and find a book on those top­ics. Chil­dren and ani­mals are always a pop­u­lar choice, but other poten­tial top­ics include travel/​scenery, cars, food, sports and many more. Large pic­ture books like this are often avail­able at deep dis­counts on book­store clear­ance racks.

A few exam­ples (all avail­able on Ama­zon) include:

Dogs

• Sweet Dreams: Wishes For Our Children

• Jour­neys of a Life­time: 500 of the World’s Great­est Trips

• Life: Won­ders of The World

• The Art of the Auto­mo­bile: The 100 Great­est Cars

2. Dolls & stuffed animals

[cap­tion id=“attachment_6378” align=“alignright” width=“270” caption=“My mother with her favourite doll.”][/​caption]

There was a woman at mom’s first assisted liv­ing facil­ity that had a pro­found and last­ing impact on me. She was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and strug­gled to speak. The woman was con­fined to a wheel­chair, and every time I saw her, she was hold­ing the same disheveled baby doll.

It was a poignant sight, and I recall feel­ing so sad for that woman. At the time, my mom was in the mid/​moderate stages of the dis­ease, so the idea of her with a doll seemed implau­si­ble. She would never get to that point.

But, alas, she would and she did. Still, when one of the care­givers asked if she could give mom a doll, I was caught off guard. I remem­bered that woman from sev­eral years back and realised we had now arrived at that place in our jour­ney – a place I never dreamed we’d be. It was a star­tling real­ity check.
 
Mom imme­di­ately fell in love with her Dora the Explorer doll. The ini­tial dis­com­fort I felt dis­si­pated instantly as I watched her gen­uine, heart­warm­ing inter­ac­tions with Dora. The affec­tion she felt for the doll was hon­est and pure, and the plea­sure she brought mom was astounding.

Dolls and stuffed ani­mals allow our loved ones the unique oppor­tu­nity to give care instead of receiv­ing it. They also offer a dis­trac­tion while pro­vid­ing pos­i­tive sen­sory stim­u­la­tion and they can even trig­ger mem­o­ries. While there are expen­sive life-​like ther­apy dolls on the mar­ket, in my expe­ri­ence, any doll serves the same pur­pose and elic­its a feel­ing of love and tenderness.

3. Fid­get Quilts & fid­dle boxes

Fid­get Quilts use a vari­ety of colours, tex­tures and objects to keep busy hands occu­pied. Some quilts fea­ture zip­pers, but­tons and Vel­cro, but the pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less. Many peo­ple design quilts around their loved one’s pre-​dementia interests.

A “fid­dle box” is a sim­i­lar con­cept; sim­ply a box (or bas­ket) filled with items that pro­vide a vari­ety of tac­tile expe­ri­ences. You might also con­sider your loved one’s hob­bies or inter­ests when putting this together. Ideas – but­tons, rib­bon, shoelaces, keys, mar­bles, jew­ellery, pho­tos, small bits of pipe or safe small hard­ware items, var­i­ous size paint­brushes, cookie cut­ters, mea­sur­ing spoons, etc.

How about a Busy Hands Fid­get Apron or some­thing for the fish­er­man in your life? If nei­ther one of those strike your fancy, con­sider a Twid­dle Muff or a sen­sory cush­ion. The Inter­net is over­flow­ing with cre­ative ideas, and Pin­ter­est is an excel­lent start­ing point for inex­pen­sive DIY projects and patterns.

4. Art

[cap­tion id=“attachment_6377” align=“alignleft” width=“300” caption=“Art ther­apy can help to improve com­mu­ni­ca­tion, behav­iour and cog­ni­tion.”][/​caption]

Accord­ing to the folks at Cog­ni­tive Dynam­ics in the US, “Art ther­apy is the delib­er­ate use of art-​making to address psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional needs. Its ben­e­fits include fos­ter­ing self-​expression, enhanc­ing cop­ing skills, man­ag­ing stress and strength­en­ing a sense of self. This trans­lates into improved com­mu­ni­ca­tion, behav­iour and cognition.” 

When the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate ver­bally is gone, art is an ideal way to stim­u­late self-​expression and cre­ativ­ity. Like music, art brings peo­ple together, and it doesn’t require a lot of fancy mate­ri­als or spe­cial skills. Start with some heavy paper or card stock, a basic set of water­colours and a paint­brush, coloured pen­cils or mark­ers – it’s that sim­ple! Adult colour­ing books have also gained pop­u­lar­ity and might be enjoyed by some­one in the early stages of dementia.

Clay is another fan­tas­tic way to encour­age cre­ativ­ity, inter­ac­tion and hand-​eye coor­di­na­tion, while cre­at­ing a tac­tile expe­ri­ence. I rec­om­mend good old Play-​Doh since it’s brightly coloured and more pli­able than some of the mod­el­ing clay on the mar­ket. Com­bine the clay with a rolling pin and cookie cut­ters and you have cre­ated a form of rem­i­nis­cence ther­apy for some­one who once loved bak­ing cookies!

5. Puz­zles

My mom loved puz­zles; we always had one going dur­ing the win­ter months. How­ever, by the mod­er­ate stages of Alzheimer’s, large jig­saw puz­zles over­whelmed and frus­trated her. I hes­i­tated to buy children’s puz­zles, which had fewer (and larger) pieces because the designs were intended for kids. She was declin­ing, no doubt, but still, I was afraid the children’s puz­zles might be degrad­ing in her moments of clarity.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_6379” align=“alignright” width=“300” caption=“Puzzles stim­u­late cog­ni­tion. (PHOTO CREDIT: Puz­zles To Remem­ber)”][/​caption]

Now there are puz­zles designed specif­i­cally with demen­tia patients in mind. Max Wallack’s non-​profit, Puz­zles to Remem­ber has part­nered with Spring­bok to cre­ate puz­zles with 12 or 36 large pieces that are much eas­ier for Alzheimer’s patients to manip­u­late. Themes are adult-​friendly, colour­ful and pleas­ing to the eye. The puz­zles pro­vide a great way to stim­u­late cog­ni­tion while offer­ing your loved one an oppor­tu­nity to achieve success!

6. Sort­ing & organising

Pro­vid­ing a loved one with sort­ing and organ­is­ing tasks is another ben­e­fi­cial way to keep demen­tia patients engaged and active. On a recent visit to a care facil­ity, I observed one of the res­i­dents organ­is­ing the news­pa­per – appar­ently a daily rit­ual. Each morn­ing, care­givers take apart the paper and lay the sec­tions out on the kitchen table. With no prompt­ing, the woman sits down and organ­ises the mess just per­fectly, lay­ing each sec­tion on top of the one before it about an inch below the last, cre­at­ing a fan or stair step-​like pattern.

Brightly coloured mar­bles, sev­eral dif­fer­ent kinds of fruit, socks, sil­ver­ware or var­i­ous hard­ware items, such as nuts, screws and wash­ers are all suit­able objects for sort­ing. It makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence how well these things are sorted; the idea is to keep hands and mind busy, and help your loved one feel a sense of pur­pose. If you can incor­po­rate favourite pas­times into the activ­ity, it’s even more meaningful.

Pro­po­nents of the Montes­sori method for demen­tia sug­gest these types of activ­i­ties can reduce aggres­sion, agi­ta­tion and other neg­a­tive behav­iours, improv­ing qual­ity of life.

Fol­low their lead

If you’re look­ing for other ideas, pick up a copy of The Alzheimer’s Cre­ativ­ity Book by Dr Jytte Lokvig, or When Car­ing Takes Courage by Mara Boto­nis. These books are full of sug­ges­tions to get the cre­ative juices flow­ing, which in turn improves engage­ment, pro­vides pos­i­tive rein­force­ment, and pro­motes an over­all feel­ing of well-​being for your loved one.

As you con­sider activ­i­ties, remem­ber this is not a “one size fits all” propo­si­tion. There are few things more unpre­dictable than demen­tia. Depend­ing on the time of day, level of agi­ta­tion and men­tal sta­tus, pref­er­ences may vary. In fact, some days no activ­ity is the right activ­ity. Most impor­tantly, don’t force the issue. The key is to offer options, then fol­low your loved one’s lead. In the process, you will cre­ate some extra­or­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful moments of joy.

Ann Napo­le­tan is an author, blog­ger and pas­sion­ate advo­cate for demen­tia aware­ness and research. Hav­ing cared for her mother dur­ing a decade long bat­tle with Alzheimer’s, she has a spe­cial place in her heart for fam­ily care­givers. She hopes that by shar­ing her family’s story, she can help oth­ers nav­i­gate their own jour­neys. Ann is the founder and cre­ator of the web­site The Long and Wind­ing Road: A Jour­ney Through Alzheimer’s and Beyond and has been pub­lished in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Liv­ing With Alzheimer’s and Other Demen­tias” and “Sea­sons of Car­ing: Med­i­ta­tions for Alzheimer’s & Demen­tia Caregivers”.

She has been a fea­tured writer for Alzheimers​.net and Care​givers​.com and has con­tributed to a vari­ety of blogs and web­sites. She is a co-​moderator of the USAgainstAlzheimer’s Face­book Sup­port Group, a non-​clergy found­ing mem­ber of ClergyAgainstAlzheimer’s, a Pur­ple Angel Ambas­sador, and a vol­un­teer with her Alzheimer’s Asso­ci­a­tion chap­ter, in addi­tion to vol­un­teer­ing in a local mem­ory care unit. Ann was also recently recog­nised on Maria Shriver’s Wipe Out Alzheimer’s Big Wall of Empowerment.



Six options to encourage engagement.

BY: Ann Napoletan


As dementia progresses, it becomes challenging to find activities that encourage mental, emotional and sensory stimulation. At the same time, we are often in search of ways to connect with our loved one when conversation is no longer an option. Possibilities are as wide and varied as one’s imagination, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

 

1. Photographs & picture books

My mom, who had Alzheimer’s, delighted in looking at photos, so I always kept a scrapbook and some photo albums on hand. Later, I added a digital frame that continually scrolled through favourite photographs. Those pictures inspired countless smiles, and I have fond memories of sitting next to her on the sofa flipping through the books. It’s impossible to know whether she recognised the people in the pictures – or whether they triggered any memories, but I do know they brought her joy in those moments, and that was the important thing.

Coffee table books full of large colourful images are another excellent option. Think about some of your loved one’s favourite things, and find a book on those topics. Children and animals are always a popular choice, but other potential topics include travel/scenery, cars, food, sports and many more. Large picture books like this are often available at deep discounts on bookstore clearance racks.

A few examples (all available on Amazon) include:

Dogs

• Sweet Dreams: Wishes For Our Children

• Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips

• Life: Wonders of The World

• The Art of the Automobile: The 100 Greatest Cars

 

2. Dolls & stuffed animals

My mother with her favourite doll.

There was a woman at mom’s first assisted living facility that had a profound and lasting impact on me. She was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and struggled to speak. The woman was confined to a wheelchair, and every time I saw her, she was holding the same disheveled baby doll.

It was a poignant sight, and I recall feeling so sad for that woman. At the time, my mom was in the mid/moderate stages of the disease, so the idea of her with a doll seemed implausible. She would never get to that point.

But, alas, she would and she did. Still, when one of the caregivers asked if she could give mom a doll, I was caught off guard. I remembered that woman from several years back and realised we had now arrived at that place in our journey – a place I never dreamed we’d be. It was a startling reality check.
 
Mom immediately fell in love with her Dora the Explorer doll. The initial discomfort I felt dissipated instantly as I watched her genuine, heartwarming interactions with Dora. The affection she felt for the doll was honest and pure, and the pleasure she brought mom was astounding.

Dolls and stuffed animals allow our loved ones the unique opportunity to give care instead of receiving it. They also offer a distraction while providing positive sensory stimulation and they can even trigger memories. While there are expensive life-like therapy dolls on the market, in my experience, any doll serves the same purpose and elicits a feeling of love and tenderness.

 

3. Fidget Quilts & fiddle boxes

Fidget Quilts use a variety of colours, textures and objects to keep busy hands occupied. Some quilts feature zippers, buttons and Velcro, but the possibilities are endless. Many people design quilts around their loved one’s pre-dementia interests.

A “fiddle box” is a similar concept; simply a box (or basket) filled with items that provide a variety of tactile experiences. You might also consider your loved one’s hobbies or interests when putting this together. Ideas – buttons, ribbon, shoelaces, keys, marbles, jewellery, photos, small bits of pipe or safe small hardware items, various size paintbrushes, cookie cutters, measuring spoons, etc.

How about a Busy Hands Fidget Apron or something for the fisherman in your life? If neither one of those strike your fancy, consider a Twiddle Muff or a sensory cushion. The Internet is overflowing with creative ideas, and Pinterest is an excellent starting point for inexpensive DIY projects and patterns.

 

4. Art

Art therapy can help to improve communication, behaviour and cognition.

According to the folks at Cognitive Dynamics in the US, “Art therapy is the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs. Its benefits include fostering self-expression, enhancing coping skills, managing stress and strengthening a sense of self. This translates into improved communication, behaviour and cognition.” 

When the ability to communicate verbally is gone, art is an ideal way to stimulate self-expression and creativity. Like music, art brings people together, and it doesn’t require a lot of fancy materials or special skills. Start with some heavy paper or card stock, a basic set of watercolours and a paintbrush, coloured pencils or markers – it’s that simple! Adult colouring books have also gained popularity and might be enjoyed by someone in the early stages of dementia.

Clay is another fantastic way to encourage creativity, interaction and hand-eye coordination, while creating a tactile experience. I recommend good old Play-Doh since it’s brightly coloured and more pliable than some of the modeling clay on the market. Combine the clay with a rolling pin and cookie cutters and you have created a form of reminiscence therapy for someone who once loved baking cookies!

 

5. Puzzles

My mom loved puzzles; we always had one going during the winter months. However, by the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s, large jigsaw puzzles overwhelmed and frustrated her. I hesitated to buy children’s puzzles, which had fewer (and larger) pieces because the designs were intended for kids. She was declining, no doubt, but still, I was afraid the children’s puzzles might be degrading in her moments of clarity.

Puzzles stimulate cognition. (PHOTO CREDIT: Puzzles To Remember)

Now there are puzzles designed specifically with dementia patients in mind. Max Wallack’s non-profit, Puzzles to Remember has partnered with Springbok to create puzzles with 12 or 36 large pieces that are much easier for Alzheimer’s patients to manipulate. Themes are adult-friendly, colourful and pleasing to the eye. The puzzles provide a great way to stimulate cognition while offering your loved one an opportunity to achieve success!

 

6. Sorting & organising

Providing a loved one with sorting and organising tasks is another beneficial way to keep dementia patients engaged and active. On a recent visit to a care facility, I observed one of the residents organising the newspaper – apparently a daily ritual. Each morning, caregivers take apart the paper and lay the sections out on the kitchen table. With no prompting, the woman sits down and organises the mess just perfectly, laying each section on top of the one before it about an inch below the last, creating a fan or stair step-like pattern.

Brightly coloured marbles, several different kinds of fruit, socks, silverware or various hardware items, such as nuts, screws and washers are all suitable objects for sorting. It makes little difference how well these things are sorted; the idea is to keep hands and mind busy, and help your loved one feel a sense of purpose. If you can incorporate favourite pastimes into the activity, it’s even more meaningful.

Proponents of the Montessori method for dementia suggest these types of activities can reduce aggression, agitation and other negative behaviours, improving quality of life.

 

Follow their lead

If you’re looking for other ideas, pick up a copy of The Alzheimer’s Creativity Book by Dr Jytte Lokvig, or When Caring Takes Courage by Mara Botonis. These books are full of suggestions to get the creative juices flowing, which in turn improves engagement, provides positive reinforcement, and promotes an overall feeling of well-being for your loved one.

As you consider activities, remember this is not a “one size fits all” proposition. There are few things more unpredictable than dementia. Depending on the time of day, level of agitation and mental status, preferences may vary. In fact, some days no activity is the right activity. Most importantly, don’t force the issue. The key is to offer options, then follow your loved one’s lead. In the process, you will create some extraordinarily beautiful moments of joy.

 

Ann Napoletan is an author, blogger and passionate advocate for dementia awareness and research. Having cared for her mother during a decade long battle with Alzheimer’s, she has a special place in her heart for family caregivers. She hopes that by sharing her family’s story, she can help others navigate their own journeys. Ann is the founder and creator of the website The Long and Winding Road: A Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Beyond and has been published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living With Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias” and “Seasons of Caring: Meditations for Alzheimer’s & Dementia Caregivers”.

She has been a featured writer for Alzheimers.net and Caregivers.com and has contributed to a variety of blogs and websites. She is a co-moderator of the USAgainstAlzheimer’s Facebook Support Group, a non-clergy founding member of ClergyAgainstAlzheimer’s, a Purple Angel Ambassador, and a volunteer with her Alzheimer’s Association chapter, in addition to volunteering in a local memory care unit. Ann was also recently recognised on Maria Shriver’s Wipe Out Alzheimer’s Big Wall of Empowerment.

 


 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Mike Good says:

    Some really great suggestions on how to help keep a loved one engaged with activities that create purpose and simply give them something to do that they enjoy. I really appreciate the links to examples.

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