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

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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.

SEE ALSO: Find Memory Care Near You

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.

More ways to keep someone with Alzheimer's or other dementias busy and active

Great physical activities to try with someone suffering from Alzheimer's or other dementias

Household work

  • Rinsing and drying dishes or loading a dishwasher.
  • Folding laundry.
  • Matching socks.
  • Dusting.
  • Vacuuming.
  • Watering plants.
  • Arranging flowers.
  • Peeling potatoes or apples, snapping beans, shelling peas, husking corn.
  • Washing vegetables, kneading bread, making salad, stirring pots.
  • Decorating cookies, cupcakes, cakes.
  • Simple mending, such as replacing buttons.
  • Polishing silver, polishing shoes.
  • Washing windows (but not on a stepstool or ladder).
  • Setting the table. Try providing items one at a time: first all the plates, then all the forks, then the knives, etc.
  • Organizing books (by size, alphabetically, by color).
  • Organizing a messy drawer.
  • Clipping coupons (whether you actually use them or not).
  • Bringing in the mail or newspapers.
  • Sorting and rolling coins.

Recreational activities

  • Playing card games, especially old favorites or simple games like War. Consider large-print cards.
  • Playing board games, such as checkers or Chinese checkers.
  • Working word-search puzzles. Look for large-print versions of books.
  • Flipping through scrapbooks or photo albums.
  • Identifying people in old photos. (Write down what you learn!)
  • Reading books and magazines; look for those heavy on images (coffee-table books and magazines on design, travel, photography).
  • Working jigsaw puzzles. You may need to experiment to find some that challenge without frustrating. On the bright side, you'll be able to use a successful one repeatedly. Consider puzzles designed for people with dementia.
  • Playing catch with a softball or beanbag.
  • Spending time with animals. Visit a neighbor's dog or arrange to have a child bring one over every day. Visit a pet store. Provide a fish tank or goldfish bowl.
  • Going out for ice cream cones. Not having to sit down, as you would at a restaurant, may be less stressful.
  • Following an exercise video. Check YouTube.com for that favorite of '60s and '70s housewives, Jack LaLanne, an icon ahead of his time who may be familiar to the person you're caring for.
  • Listening to old radio shows (check your local library or alzstore.com).
  • Playing dance music and dancing.
  • Watching a digital picture frame with rotating images of family members. Set it so pictures change slowly. * Ask open-ended questions about the pictures as you watch.
  • Reading old comics. Look for books that are collections of classics from the person's era, like Peanuts, Family Circus, Little Nemo.
  • Looking through a personal-memories box. Include such items as military pins, baby clothes, postcards, pictures of old houses, costume jewelry, and other tactile icons that have meaning to the person.
  • Caring for a doll. In late-stage dementia, people often find comfort in "taking care of" a baby doll or simply cuddling and stroking a stuffed animal.

More ways to keep someone with Alzheimer's or other dementias busy and active

Outdoor activities

Limit activities to a confined area, or provide a watchful eye if the person is prone to wandering.

  • Tending a garden: weeding, hoeing, watering, monitoring. (Indoor variations, such as an herb garden, orchids, or a terrarium, also provide sensory stimulation.)
  • Raking leaves or sweeping a porch.
  • Picking up sticks.
  • Watering the lawn.
  • Planting bulbs.
  • Taking a walk (with a companion).
  • Feeding birds, ducks, fish (or watching a bird feeder placed outside a window).

Arts and spiritual activities to try with someone suffering from Alzheimer's or other dementias

Handiwork

  • Stacking kindling.
  • Organizing a toolbox or workbench.
  • Sanding wood.
  • Washing or polishing a car.
  • Tightening screws.
  • Painting (such as a fence).
  • Digging holes.
  • Working a lockbox (a wooden box featuring a variety of locks).

Arts activities

  • Experimenting with different materials, such as watercolors, clay, pastels, washable markers.
  • Drawing or coloring. Search amazon.com with the phrase coloring books -- there are many with patterns or adult-friendly themes.
  • Creating a family history scrapbook.
  • Using an electronic keyboard or child's zither.
  • Singing along to holiday carols or songs from a favorite era.
  • Listening to audio books.
  • Listening to a music box at one's bedside.
  • Stringing popcorn or cranberries (for holiday decorations) or cereal and popcorn (for birds).
  • Creating collages. Use leaves, magazine images, tissue paper, buttons, but beware of small choking hazards for people with advanced dementia.
  • Stamping to make gift tags, cards, or just for fun. Find supplies at any craft store.

Spiritual Activities

  • Singing hymns.
  • Being read to from religious texts.
  • Walking a labyrinth.
  • Making crafts together for a charity, which can be more rewarding than making a craft for yourself. Someone who crochets might use a simple, repetitive pattern to make scarves or lap blankets.

5 months ago, said...

My mother is a terrible rummager. I keep her at home & her alzheimer's is far to advanced for any activities listed above. I have a dresser for her and all the drawers are filled with scarfs. This has kept her busy for hours but she is beginning to grow bored with it. I would like some ideas of other items to put in the drawers.


10 months ago, said...

ALSO, water color pencils are way better than crayolas for many adults!!!


10 months ago, said...

PINTEREST has scads of FREE, printable adult coloring ideas of a total range of difficulty!!!


10 months ago, said...

My husband was always a builder and fixer. Now he has a BAD lower back, significant hearing loss--helped but not alleviated with hearing aids, a deformed left hand (table saw). And he's entered Stage 6 with Agressive Sundowning, mixed with paranoid delusion, obsession. We live in the country a bit, so isolation is a problem. His grown children show no interest in him or his condition and are of no support but for one who cannot drive and lives fairly far away. But for part-time, paid help, it's on my plate. Even the part time help gets quite expensive. Can't afford the time to even think of moving/selling my home he built---where I've lived since 1980. I keep him so generally healthy (diet) that we are about 8-0 years in on this disease. I've had him living with me and been maried to him for 7 of these. I am no longer able to work (musician/teacher) and will not likely be able to re-enter the workforce when he's no longer at home since I'm 70. (He's 85.) Our "system" is so wretched that there's just little to no hope or adequate help. My health has suffered rather a lot. I am exhausted all the time. He CANNOT do the activities all the books and articles suggest. Has never cooked, can no longer do the things he once so loved to do. I have adult coloring (he is very talented--used to paint portraits), jigsaw puzzles (only interested if someone joins him), t.v., pets to love on. I'm considering legos but EVERYTHING COSTS MONEY. And I can't stand to sit and watch what he likes--especially when there is so much else to do--or I'm coping w chronic pain issues of my own. I've researched so very many book/articles. The usual suggestions just don't fit!!!


12 months ago, said...

Many good suggestions, however, I still find it beneficial for giving my husband a sense of following simple directions and encouraging him to do what I believe he is capable of such as undressing himself for bed before I come in to help with what he can't do. If I stay in the room from the beginning then he relies on me to do everything for him. He has a cell phone with my # listed on his call button and calls me when he's done and ready for the next step. I encourage him to participate in his care as much as possible always with safety first most. Mind over matter has been the biggest challenge for us when it comes to mobility but it's getting steadily better. He has a very hard time remembering yesterday and today, and tomorrow's happenings, people and places. But I love how he places his trust in me knowing I'm by his side to see him through and be there for him along each step of the way. I wish he'd let others care for him also but he doesn't want anyone else but me and doesn't like to share me with others. This can make it exhausting and stressful at times. Also I need suggestions for his sleep apnea since the doctors don't think he would wear a c-pac at night. I worry so much about him during the night. He is in a hospital bed which helps a little bit to elevate his head.


about 1 year ago, said...

This article is extremely helpful. My parents have been in and out of the hospital and rehab/nursing homes, when they get home they seem to get into a rut of sleeping and eating - not even TV interests them anymore. I love some of your suggested activities and will try some of them immediately. Thanks for the tips.


about 1 year ago, said...

My father used to do large jigsaw puzzles of 500+ pieces. As his dementia progressed, he was able to do puzzles of 12 pieces. Unfortunately, the puzzles we could find were all with kids theme picture. I then decided to create few designs for adult on puzzles of 12 large pieces. Perfect for my father. You can see those designs at http://alzafun.com if you are interested.


over 1 year ago, said...

A maze which can be laminated so when using a felt tip pen, easily cleaned, can be done over and over. There can be comfort in doing familiar activities. I am NOT a fan of word search, code words works for me as it also involves cognitive thinking and sometimes it makes me laugh when I realise I have been saying the word incorrectly. Laughing is extremely important, in all the articles I have read today not one mentioned it.


over 1 year ago, said...

Good article. From my experience, the article is right that using crayolas for coloring kids coloring books may be too simplistic. But, early last summer, I gave my 87 year old Mother some crayolas and coloring pictures of flowers and birds with more "adult" pictures from http://www.supercoloring.com/ . She started coloring them and is now obsessed with coloring. She colors morning, afternoons, evenings and before she goes to bed and would rather color than eat or go to bed at night. She has actually gotten better at it. Some really end up being works of art. She sleeps better at night and doesn't want to sleep a good part of the day. My Mother later got some gifts of kids coloring books from friends, but she didn't like them. She couldn't turn the pages of the coloring books like she could pages of pictures printed on a printer. Plus, I once saw her page through an entire kid's coloring book and stop on only one page and paint a single flower she happened to find on a page. Since early last summer, I estimate she has colored over 2,500 pages of pictures. For Mother, all flowers are red and green, so I now buy boxes of single color crayolas off the internet. Also, I am now on my second battery operated crayola sharpener because I wore out the first one!


over 1 year ago, said...

I'm 86 and lucky. I'm currently writing a book. 2 of my friends are stricken with Alzheimer's. I visit them often. Question: I often times have thoughts of happenings I haven't thought of for many years. Is this a sign of anything? Love your articles, very helpful. Roger


over 1 year ago, said...

it seems that any information given for those with dementia are for those with mild/moderate dementia. we need some more suggestions for those in later stages, as we've run out of ideas !!!


almost 2 years ago, said...

the dementia homes usually do activities with groups we bring in pictures of familiar people


almost 2 years ago, said...

Wonderful!!


almost 2 years ago, said...

Im a best friend of mine and is to hard for me. to try to help her ; because. I got very depre when I can't helped.......thanks


almost 2 years ago, said...

Music and singing are often sustained links to 'reality' even after other connections - talking, gestures ... - are lost. Connecting familiar songs to activities, helps maintain that interaction, even after the music stops.


almost 2 years ago, said...

My husband had encephalopathy, a form of dementia. He didn't know who I was and I became his 'girlfriend'. I entered his 'reality' and this helped both of us cope. He was a wanderer and would occasionally get lost. I solved this with the help of a 'Pet Tagg', which I got at the Verizon store for $99 and included 3 months maintenance. After that, maintenance was under $8 a month. It's a small device, meant for pets. It clips onto their collar but, in his case, I clipped it to his belt. Even before I had a 'smart' phone it would text me the address he was near. It saved his life at least 3 times when he was not visible from the street but, since it insisted he was at a particular address, I would keep looking and would find him once in a garbage can enclosure, once sitting in tall grass, once down at a creek bank. Dementia can be an interesting experience to completely understate the condition. Challenging to be sure but what life doesn't have challenges? If your friends want to help, let them! They can sit with them or go for a walk with them. You can manage unless it becomes dangerous for the patient or you! Then get more help. Call Senior Services for advice.


about 2 years ago, said...

Thank you so very much for this article. I learned a lot about what I should do and what not to do to aide my 94 yr old grandmother who's dealing with dementia. We both tend to get a little frustrated from time to time. Hopefully incorporating some of your ideas and the suggested activities into our daily routine will prove beneficial.


about 2 years ago, said...

Look patient, act patient, be patient were good suggestions. I have tried to explain things to my mom and she doesn't get it. It's better just to listen and say okay. Thanks!


about 2 years ago, said...

Having worked with dementia patients is a challenge but extremely rewarding. These people are confused, sad, and very limited in their daily lives. Although being loving and sometimes funny. Making them comfortable is a main priority. I love them all!


about 2 years ago, said...

Gmador, To see the list Paula is referring to you will need to scroll to the end of the article where you will see the page numbers. The list is on page 2 and continues on page 3. Hope that helps.


over 2 years ago, said...

in addition to all these-if the person has age related macular degeneration you have to find activities that they can do-such as matching socks-putting dishes away-sweeping the floor and yes dusting with a big duster-magnifiers are a big help-with games and such-checkers and chinese checkers are good.