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How to Keep Someone With Alzheimer's or Other Dementias Busy and Active

By , Caring.com senior editor
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Successful activities for someone with Alzheimer's or other dementias

Keeping busy stimulates the brains of people with dementia while boosting a sense of usefulness and accomplishment. But they lose the ability to select satisfying activities and follow through on them -- so you need to initiate things to do. Too much idle time can make anyone feel lonely and unproductive, raising the risk of depression, agitation, and anger.

To make an activity a success for someone with Alzheimer's or other dementias:

Build on activities the person has always enjoyed. A bridge player may no longer be able to keep up, but she may enjoy holding cards and playing a simpler game, such as Old Maid or Solitaire. But introduce new ideas, too, to see what "clicks."

Aim for the "sweet spot" -- not too easy, not too hard. If an activity is too simplistic or childish (like coloring books for kids), the person might feel insulted or bored. If it requires remembering sequences or is otherwise above the person's cognitive level, it will frustrate and turn her off.

Take common changes of dementia into account. The attention span shortens. Changes in recent memory make it hard to follow activities with multiple steps or instructions (such as cooking). Less self-critical people with dementia may be more open to art. Musical ability tends to be very well retained.

Take glitches in stride. Don't be a stickler for things being done the "right" way or according to rules. If it bothers you that dishes are rinsed improperly, for example, redo them yourself later without comment. The main consideration should be how the activity makes the person feel: involved, purposeful, successful.

Look patient, act patient, be patient. Impatience or anger tends to make the person with dementia anxious or balky. Don't give orders and make suggestions. Watch your body language, too: She'll be more tuned in than you might think to a knitted brow and heavy sighs. What helps: encouraging comments and realistic praise (without talking down or using an exaggerated voice), saying thanks where appropriate.

Don't challenge or argue. Avoid asking "Why" when something goes awry. People with dementia likely don't know why they did something peculiar (like store a paint set in the refrigerator). Gently suggest an alternative: "I don't think the paint should get cold, so let's store it here on the desk." Rational arguments are useless because the person's emotions are stronger than her logic.

Make activities routine. If an activity is a hit, do it every day or two. Or do the same thing, slightly modified: folding towels one day, sheets the next. Pursue categories of activities at about the same time every day (physical or outdoor in the morning, quiet handiwork after lunch) to add comforting structure to the day.