Activities For Dementia Patients

Activities For Dementia Patients

September 10, 2020

Written by Lori Jo Vest

Fact checked by The Brain Blog Team

Activities for Dementia Patients

When someone in your family is diagnosed with any form of Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related disease, you may wonder if there are specific activities for dementia patients that might be helpful for them, from both general health and cognitive functioning perspectives.

 Are there some hobbies and pastime activities that dementia patients may enjoy more than others? What recreational activities can people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia continue to participate in? Are there specific activities that can help stave off memory loss and loss of cognitive functioning? What hobbies would be helpful to them as their disease progresses? How can you help your parent or aging loved one continue to enjoy the rest of their lives after they get an Alzheimer’s disease or dementia diagnosis? We’re hoping to answer those questions in this article. 

While Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are life-changing and can turn your world upside down, it’s good to know that many people are living with these conditions - enjoying activities they’ve always loved with others and even pursuing new activities that better suit their current cognitive functioning levels and support their future cognitive functioning.

Be aware that in the early stages of these types of disorders of the brain, a person living with dementia may withdraw from activities that they used to love. They may fear other people noticing their memory lapses, or they may encounter confusion when trying to complete complex tasks that used to be easy for them. 

If you notice your elderly loved one withdrawing from their prior favorite activities or expressing paranoid thoughts and feelings, consider scheduling an appointment with their general practitioner to ensure that there isn’t a health concern, a medication side effect that needs to be managed, or early dementia signs and symptoms that need to be addressed. Don’t hesitate to ask the doctor for testing that may help your loved one reach a treatable diagnosis.

 Know, too, that there are medications and supplements that people with early Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia can consider, to help them maintain their active lifestyle and stave off or minimize some of the potential effects of these horrible memory diseases. Well-researched and clinically-tested supplements can improve both the brain’s cognitive function and overall brain health. 

Interested in learning more about treatments and supplements for people with Alzheimer's and dementia to consider?  Check out the following brain blog articles:

Activities for People with Dementia

There are 5 million people living with dementia in the United States. Once a person has received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia, there are many activities for people with dementia that they can both enjoy and benefit from. 

When determining what activities might be best for people with dementia, we found this advice from the Alzheimer’s Association to be particularly helpful: 

“Having an open discussion around any concerns and making slight adjustments (after a diagnosis) can make a difference. For example, a large social gathering may be overwhelming, but the person may be able to interact more successfully in smaller groups. As Alzheimer's progresses, you may need to make other adjustments to the activity.” 

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends that you, as a caregiver, consider the emotional aspects of an activity, when determining which ones will be the most appropriate for people with dementia. We created these tips based on their advice: 

When planning activities, consider your aging loved one’s current skills and abilities. 

What are they able to enjoy and what limits may have to be considered? Are there things that they’ve always enjoyed that they can still do well? Gardening, supervised cooking, reading, bird watching ... There are so many things that a person living with dementia can enjoy. Try singing and dancing (even chair dancing) as ways to help an aging loved one feel a bit happier and more energetic if they seem to be feeling down. Be mindful so that you notice signs that they may begetting tired, so you can transition to a quieter activity or even a nap, as necessary and appropriate. 

Pay attention to what makes your loved one happy and what doesn’t. 

What activities leave them appearing more anxious or annoyed? Do you notice that they get agitated during certain activities? Focus on what brings calm and avoid activities that don’t.

Get support for you, too. 

As a caregiver, you’re challenged and have many demands on your time. You’re managing your own emotions related to your loved one’s memory condition. You may also be managing a heavy load of additional responsibilities. Consider looking at online message boards for Alzheimer’s caregivers, or search for ideas for new activities that may bring more peace to you and more joy to your loved one. 

Encourage your loved one.  

Continue to stay involved in daily life, getting up in the morning at the same time every day, bathing and dressing in the morning, setting the table, eating with the family, and perhaps even helping to do the dishes and other household chores, if that’s an activity that is enjoyable for them. Routines can be very helpful in households with a family member living with dementia, as many find routine to be comforting and calming, during a time when their memory lapses may leave them feeling anxious and worried about their future. 

Adjust your expectations. 

As a caregiver, you may be required to continually change your expectations of the person with dementia. They may not be able to take an active role in household activities, and may even require help with bathing, dressing and other personal habits, as their disease progresses. When planning activities, keep in mind that your person’s cognitive and physical abilities may vary widely day to day. 

Grace, Not Grief. 

When you are a caregiver for someone living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, it can be incredibly challenging in so many ways. Determining what activities are most appropriate, helpful and healthy can feel like an overwhelming and impossible task. Here are a few guidelines for giving your loved one grace, not grief, when you’re struggling with your own emotions. 

Activities for people with dementia may need to be closely monitored, to accommodate a waning attention span, higher frustration levels, and cognitive concerns. These tips should help: 

  • When you notice your loved one getting frustrated, end or modify the activity to get their mood back on track. In fact, sometimes, your person just won’t be ready at the same time that you are. That’s okay. Take a break and try again later.
  •  Start the activity for your loved one. While they may desire to participate and have the energy and attitude, they may not have the cognitive functioning to be able to successfully begin or complete the task at hand.
  • Demonstrate and participate. By showing the activities to the person with dementia, you can make it easier and more natural for them to participate. 
  •  Enjoy the process. What’s important when you’re doing activities with your loved one is to enjoy spending time together and help the person with dementia feel more useful and helpful.
  • Adjust your expectations. Sometimes, you’ll want to have fun or enjoy some time with your loved one and they simply won’t be up to it. That’s okay. Being flexible and not having strict expectations can help prevent upset.
  •  When you’re providing instructions, focus on one easy step at a time. Make sure to provide loving guidance and don’t expect strict adherence to the directions you provide. Good enough is good enough.
  •  Allow your person to feel helpful and needed. Ask them if they’d like to help you or tell them that you need help and they can provide it. 
  • Skip any criticism or corrections. When doing activities with people with dementia, it’s best to focus on the enjoyment they’re having and skip any critique that may come to mind. 
  • Encourage your person to express themselves. Encourage them to sing, converse, draw or write letters, even if the result is confusing for you. If it brings happiness, it’s worth the effort. 
  • Draw your loved one into conversations you’re having with others. If you’re doing daily activities around the house, talk to them about what’s happening. They may not be able to answer you, though they will most likely be benefiting from the engagement. 

Now that we’ve talked about the “hows” of engaging in activities for people with dementia, we’ve also collected some ideas for specific things you can do to bring happiness and a sense of normalcy to someone who is living with dementia.

Create a Memory Box

One popular activity that people living with dementia may enjoy is to create a Memory Box. Think of it as a way to connect a person with their past by looking through its contents. In what’s known as “ reminiscence activities,” your loved one will most likely thoroughly enjoy being encouraged to think about and discuss their pleasant memories.

 You can use a Memory Box to archive family memories, educate children about their ancestors, or stimulate the memory of a loved one who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

How to Create a Memory Box

A Memory Box is a physical box, filled with items that are reminiscent of a particular era. These items can be photographs, color print-outs of images, postcards, small toys, candies that were popular then, even newspapers or magazines from the time. To make one, you’ll need a shoe box or a small shipping box.

 Creating a Memory Box gives you a fun way to reminisce with an individual or a group of people, who may enjoy discussing a particular time in history. Besides the social benefits, there are several others, too, particularly for people living with dementia. Here are a few suggestions that may help you spend pleasant time with your loved one: 

  1. Use the Memory Box to encourage your loved one to talk about the items that are in it. Do they remember that time period? Did they wear clothes that look like the person in the photo? Did they play with the toys that are in the box? This helps people with dementia continue to communicate and maintain their dignity. 
  2. Encourage your loved one to talk about the happy memories they have. Often, dementia and other memory diseases can cause loss of short-term memory, though many patients still have access to their long-term memory with all of their stories and history. This type of reminiscent communication is helpful for stimulating their memory. 

Creating a Memory Box for an Individual

 If you’re creating a Memory Box for a loved one living with dementia, consider starting with a small cardboard box and wrapping it with contact paper or fabric in your person’s favorite colors or patterns. 

Senior care experts recommend loading a Memory Box for an individual with items from a specific era of the individual’s past (like the 1940s or 1950s fashion, cars and movies) then adding in personal photos of their pets, their childhood, their family and milestone moments of their lives like weddings and family births.

Creating a Memory Box for a Group

If your Memory Box will be tailored for a specific group, like an elder community or elder care center, you’ll want to use a sturdier container, perhaps a hat box or a vintage suitcase. You’ll also want to stick with the more general images and objects from an era or surrounding a particular moment in history, like the celebration of America’s bicentennial or or even American struggles that they may have participated in, like the Vietnam War. Think of more postcards and photographs, even items related to pop culture like celebrity photos and movie posters.

Labeling the items with sticky notes can help ensure that any caregiver can use the Memory Box with the group. Identifying locations and objects in images and naming occasions or celebrities in the photos is helpful, too. 

How and When to Use a Memory Box

A memory box can be used to help people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia reminisce. It’s an excellent way to distract a person living with dementia when they become worried, anxious or upset. It can also act as a way to initiate conversation and get them talking about the good times that they remember, rather than focusing on their current struggles and distresses. 

In home and group settings, it can be helpful to keep a memory box, or even a few of them, located where they’re convenient to caregivers.

Other Reminiscing Activities for People Living with Dementia

Older people often enjoy revisiting the media they consumed in their youth, whether that is in the form of books, artwork, music, movies or television shows. It can be both comforting and relaxing.

Watching Nostalgic TV and Movies:  Your aging parents probably grew up watching old favorite television shows like Gunsmoke and Gilligan’s Island, and classic movies featuring Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple. Many people find they truly enjoy familiarity of these old programs, currently available on networks like METV and Turner Classic Movies. They may even find “binging” on their favorite old TV series to be a great way to spend a few hours with family members.

 Playing Retro Music: Music brings back pleasant memories like nothing else, right? And with free online radio services like Online Radio Box and in-home devices like Alexa, you can set up your home, or any care center environment that supports the people you care for, with soothing music. Whether their favorite era is the 30s, the 40s, the 50s or any other decade, there’s a channel that you can play to create a comforting ambiance in their living space. 

Play Vintage Games: Board games like checkers and card games like Go Fish can lead to activity that is filled with laughter and doesn’t require a lot of focus or attention. These games can be played by the entire family and by all ages -from children through great grandparents. 

Family Activities for People with Dementia 

What kind of activities that are appropriate for people with dementia AND can be done by the entire family? We found some great ideas, which we’ve pulled from to create the list shown below, on the Alzheimer’s Association website: 

“Spending time with a family member or friend in the middle or late stages of Alzheimer’s can be meaningful and fun—especially if you take your cue from the person. What do they like to do? What are they able to do? What are they in the mood for today?” 

Do something outside. 

  • Take a walk at a park or nature area
  • Plant flowers or water plants
  • Feed the birds with a bird feeder, then watch them from the window
  • Find a bench or a swing and people watch
  • Have a picnic in the park or in the backyard
  • Have your morning coffee on the patio or deck
Do something inside.
  • Listen to the person’s favorite music
  • Look at family photo albums
  • Watch a favorite sport or movie on television
  • Play with play dough
  • Play checkers, dominos or another board game
  • Look at photos in a photography book 
  • Video record the person answering questions about their life -including their childhood, their pets, their parents, their sisters and brothers, or their first car

Games for Dementia Patients

As a caregiver, you may wonder, are there brain games specifically for dementia patients? Are there activities that you can use to provide calm, increase happiness, and add structure to the days of someone living with memory disease? 

Staying actively engaged in life is critical to a senior’s health and wellness, particularly for those who are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia or memory-related illnesses. Unfortunately, initiating activity can be challenging for those suffering with these diseases.

 The SeniorLink blog solicited ideas for helping those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia have a sense of control over their environment, engage their memories and communicate with their families. We’ve summarized some of these ideas -provided by caregivers, memory care facility managers, dementia experts and people living with family members with dementia - below. 

Try trivia. Research involving people with the average age of 80 shows that people who play trivia and other board games actually stave off mental decline by stimulating the temporal and hippocampus regions of the brain. 

Work a puzzle. Several studies have shown that seniors with memory loss who work on puzzles twice a week had improved scores on memory tests. 

Play card matching games. Games that require remembering cards in order to create a match can help improve your person’s memory, concentration and cognitive skills. 

Additionally, don’t overlook apps as a source for games for dementia patients. Here are a few that are particularly enjoyable and suitable for all stages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

My Reef 3D: Even someone with advanced dementia can interact with the different fish in the My Reef 3D app. While there are simple tasks that are part of the app, like stocking the aquarium and feeding the fish, it’s also pleasant for the user to simply sit back and watch the beautiful, virtual fish. 

FlowerGarden: If your loved one enjoyed gardening, they will probably love the FlowerGarden app. Users are able to plant, water and watch their virtual flowers grow. They can even send “bouquets” to others from the app.

Memory Games For Dementia

There are several memory games and game apps that can be played by dementia patients to encourage cognitive activities and communication. Here are some examples:

MindMate: The MindMate app has over a million users and a focus on keeping your mind and body healthy. It includes brain games focused on four cognitive areas: problem-solving, speed, memory, and attention. The creators recommend it for “anyone living with memory problems like Alzheimer's or Dementia, and those with a family history of cognitive decline.” And the bonus? It’s free! 

Lumosity: Lumosity Brain Training is both a website and an app that is focused on brain games and activities that they claim will help your brain increase its attention, memory, speed, problem-solving and flexibility. 

AARP’s Game Page: AARP has an entire website, entitled Staying Sharp, that is dedicated to brain health and helping seniors maintain their cognitive functioning, including memory. Access to Staying Sharp comes with the annual AARP membership, which is very affordable at about $40 a year. Memory games are just one of the ways that people living with dementia can stay active and engaged in their lives and with their families. A simple Google search for “Memory Games for Seniors” or “Memory Games for Dementia Patients” reaps a plethora of options -both free and low-cost.

Brain Games for Seniors with Dementia

There are a myriad of options for brain games for seniors with dementia diagnoses. From word search and crossword puzzles to online video games and classic board games like The Game of Life and Chutes and Ladders, your loved one is sure to find a few that they enjoy playing, either alone or with others. While they’re still able, caregivers for seniors with dementia should consider daily time spent solving brain games and working puzzles, to help maintain communication and possibly minimize cognitive decline.

When deciding what brain games might be best for seniors with dementia, keep in mind that your loved one’s current level of cognitive functioning should be your guide. Start with beginner level activities and gradually move up to more difficult activities, to avoid frustration and possible conflicts. Also, be sure and pick games that they’ll enjoy, or may decide that they simply don’t want to play.  

Many online brain games are offered for free or for a small monthly fee. Here are a few more that might be good to try: 

Daily Word Search: AARP has a free online word search that mimics the classic game that’s enjoyed by all ages. It even has a theme, to make it even more interesting.

 Solitaire: Who didn’t while away hours of their youth playing solitaire? Solitaire helps your brain get better at recognizing patterns and is a great workout for your memory. Try this free, no-frills version:

Crossword Puzzles: If your senior loved one with dementia loved crossword puzzles before they were diagnosed, they probably still love them now. Print out large scale, somewhat easy crossword puzzles here:

Best Board Games for Dementia Patients

As a caregiver, you may wonder “what are the best board games for dementia patients?” Did you know that research has shown that playing board games may help slow down declining cognition and reduce depression in the elderly? This is really good news, considering that seniors and their families may enjoy playing board games together as a weekly ritual. 

Games that allow for multi-generational play, aren’t too complicated and are a bit challenging can be great choices for board games for dementia patients. 

Here are some fun choices that your senior with a memory-related disease may enjoy:

Qwirkle: When playing Qwirkle, players match tiles of different shapes and colors. Its makers describe it as “the perfect combination of skill and chance that all ages can play, understand and enjoy!”

Dixit: Dixit is a combination of a card game and a board game. Players are given beautifully illustrated cards, and they use their creative skills to make up a story about what’s in the image. It’s described as “one of those rare games that can be played with a mixed age and skill group with little to no difficulty.” 

Ticket to Ride: In this train-travel-themed board game, players travel the world, drawing new cards and playing their hand to get to their “destination.” In the American version, players claim railway routes and collect train cards to reach more cities than other players. 

Hey, That’s My Fish!: In Hey, That’s My Fish!, players are given colorful hexagon tiles with fish and penguins on them, with a goal of moving their penguin across the board.

Jenga: Everyone loves playing Jenga. It’s not complicated, yet it’s fun for all ages. While this game of tower-building with wooden blocks isn’t a board game, we include it here as a tabletop game that’s enjoyable by seniors and youth alike. 

Backgammon: Your senior may have played backgammon as a young adult and might enjoy revisiting it now. One of the oldest board games, it’s a game of both luck and strategy. Be mindful of whether your person living with dementia is still able to manage the strategy aspect of backgammon before including it in your lineup of family games.  

Bugs in the Kitchen: Ever hear of Hex Bugs? They’re small robotic “bugs” (with batteries) that move through vibration. The board game Bugs in the Kitchen uses these colorful little crawlers on a board, allowing players to move spoons and guide the bugs to their traps. 

Cranium: Cranium is a board game with all types of different and entertaining challenges for players to complete, from sculpting with playdough and humming to drawing photos and completing word challenges. Players work together as teams, so your loved one with dementia can easily participate, with limited pressure. 

Tsuro: Tsuro is a beautiful board game, typically designed with a dragon motif, wherein the players lay down colorful tiles to create a board and determine the path of their token. It’s described as both easy and strategic, playable by all ages. The tactile feeling of the tiles and the beautifully illustrated imagery may make it even more enjoyable for your loved one with dementia.

Latice: Latice is another board game that uses colorful, tactile tiles. By matching colors and shapes (landing on sun squares and wind tiles), players who play all of their pieces win, and ages from 8 to 100 can play. 

Dominos: Another game played with tiles that are pleasant to hold in your hands, game of dominoes has rules that are simple and easy to remember. Yet, in spite of its simplicity, the challenge of matching numbers and colors in this game has value as a brain training exercise for elderly adults with dementia. 

In Closing

As a caregiver, this article is probably just a starting point for determining what activities for dementia patients will work best for your unique family and circumstances. We recommend that you research and try different activities that you can do with your loved one or senior with dementia, to determine what they will enjoy the most.

You can also talk to your loved one’s doctor to get a referral to a social worker if you’d like to find out what activities may be available for your loved one living with dementia in your geographic area. Resources like your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association can also help you connect with both support groups and more helpful information.

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