Activities for Alzheimer's and Dementia Patients

Keeping busy stimulates the brains of elderly 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 for the person with dementia you are caring for. Too much idle time can make anyone feel lonely and unproductive, raising the risk of depression, agitation, and anger.

Tips to create successful activities for dementia patients:

1. Build on activities the person with dementia 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."

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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

Household chores

  • Rinsing and drying dishes or loading a dishwasher
  • Folding laundry
  • Matching socks
  • Dusting
  • Vacuuming
  • Watering plants
  • Arranging flowers
  • 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).
  • Attend an enrichment program for people with dementia at a local museum or library, if these programs exist in your area.
  • 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 dementia patients.
  • 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.

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).

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
  • 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.


Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio


over 1 year ago, said...

I think the Boa books were recommended because they both have older people in the stories and because they lead to discussion and are colorful. Picture books are good for some dementia patients because while they can still read, they cannot maintain in their memory the words they have read to have it make sense (reading comprehension). They also may quit watching movies because they cannot follow what has happened in the story. The rest of the books were age appropriate. You can always select what is appropriate for your loved one.


almost 2 years ago, said...

Why would you ever read kindergarten books to adults, unless you were reading picture books to them that they may have read to their children, or read as children? I am referencing The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash, and any other similar books. And that only as part of a structured program, not as the whole program itself. The first rule of activities for those with Alzheimer's is treat them like adults. Linda Bailey CTRS


about 2 years ago, said...

I currently work on a challenging all male dementia ward,where some are either Immobile or others pace the corridors looking for something tearing up books or throwing items,is there anything you can suggest to occupy them?


over 2 years ago, said...

Plz help My mom just tears up everything she gets her hands on Books etc I need an activity to help her to occupy her time She is 88 gotten worse over last yr Still knows immediate family members Stays at home and I have a caregiver while I work My dad 90 not well also O2 24/7 Any suggestions? My patience run thin Only child and I am trying so hard, but wish I could think of something for my mom to do


over 2 years ago, said...

I am just learning. It is my third month as an activity aide and just love it. would like to find information of different pictures I can play from my computer to the projector. I would like to start conversations with the residents about what they think they are doing in the pictures a what is happening.


over 3 years ago, said...

On the Internet? Best Alzheimer's Products has some great articles about the importance of Activity for people with dementia.


over 3 years ago, said...

What an excellent list. I'm sharing these on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Thank you.


almost 4 years ago, said...

You can combine the idea of scrapbooking and making a memory book by creating a LifeSongs memory book. It can be an activity for early stage dementia and a tool for Alzheimer's care for late stage dementia. It combines photo collages and 12 musical recordings (that you record depending on the person's favorites) in order to tell their life story. It is used for reminiscing, redirecting and calming negative behaviors. Please visit www.LifeSongs.info to learn more.


almost 4 years ago, said...

why do people with dementia need picture books and what happens if it is not met


about 4 years ago, said...

Very helpful information


about 4 years ago, said...

Are there purchasable activities (puzzles, etc) that I can send my sister who is a dementia patient at the Naval Retirement home?


over 4 years ago, said...

Sometimes you hit on the thing or things that help more than even imaginable. My sisters and i found that mom loves coloring. It gives her peace when she is not out of the house doing something. She seeks approval and when coloring we are able to tell her r how beautiful her pictures are.. and they are!


over 4 years ago, said...

This info is very helpful thanx


over 4 years ago, said...

Hi There, I am a singer/pianist who entertains at Assisted Living Facilities and Alzheimer's Outreach Centres in Southern Ontario daily. I see the most unresponsive patients react to the music when I start to play. It is always such a nice feeling to see a person who is greatly afflicted with Alzheimer's or Dementia to brighten and smile when I play an old song that perhaps brings some kind of happy memory to them.


almost 5 years ago, said...

I think my mother might be father along. She can sill read. With a lot of help, large piece puzzels. It's hard to explain. She seems physically fit, but her hands hurt. She forget's too easily to do cooking. She can help set the table. All she wants to do is eat, read and (sometimes) walk. She no longer takes Aricept. She's on Paxil since my dad died last year. It has helped with her violent outbursts. I really don't know what to do anymore. Just live.


almost 5 years ago, said...

It was a helpful article to me. No changes necessary.


almost 5 years ago, said...

I am trying to find activities for my husband who has dementia, but is still pretty functional; but has never had any hobbies except listening to music; so I am just looking for ideas and suggestions to help him pass the time.


about 5 years ago, said...

i work in a Alzheimer's and Dementia care home and at the momant i am a carera for them but i got a job intervow has activies co in the same care home nexts turseday so thank u for tsome iders x


over 5 years ago, said...

Thanks for the great idea.


over 5 years ago, said...

My grandfather has dementia, and we're looking for a CD player. Headphones/earbuds are not an option. We're looking for something VERY simple, with a limited number of buttons. Any ideas?


over 5 years ago, said...

I thought someone mentioned caring for a blind woman with moderate geriatric dementia, I don't see any suggestions for elderly blind patients with failing memory?


over 5 years ago, said...

My beautiful Mother has always been very active. Now she struggles to maintain some kind of normal lifestyle. My husband and I are doing everything we can to give her the quality of life she so deserves. So we will do some of the activities listed above as I know she will enjoy them. Thank You.


over 5 years ago, said...

I take care of a woman with moderate dementia and she is blind. Can you recomend any activities that would be suitible for her?


over 5 years ago, said...

A variety of ideas using things you already know or have around the house.


almost 6 years ago, said...

Good information. A week ago today, we moved my mom into our home, having had a bad experience with a dementia care unit in an assisted living facility. I wanted ideas for activities that maintain her dignity and don't put her on the same level as my 3 year old granddaughter. Your article provided just that. Thank you.