Editor's Note: This article, written by Jill Gilbert, originally appeared as "Games to Engage the Mind" in McKnight's Long Term Care News November 2008 edition.
A 2007 study in the journal Neuroepidemiology estimates that 3.8 million people in the United States have dementia. The progressive decline in cognitive and physical abilities among this population makes it increasingly difficult for both family members and nursing home caregivers to engage with them.
No one understands this better than Karen Miller, whose mother struggled after suffering a massive stroke and developing Alzheimer's. A lifelong lover of puzzles, Miller's mother could no longer handle the tiny pieces. She took up cards until her manual dexterity deteriorated to the point where she could only work on children's painting books.
Searching for solutions
After her mother's passing, Miller became dedicated to helping people like her mother find activities that were both easy to do and engaging. She began interviewing nursing home activity directors. All the requests were remarkably similar: They needed enjoyable, age-appropriate activities that could be completed in a single session, and that preferably had a storytelling theme.
Miller went to work designing a prototype. The puzzles are lap-sized, with six large pieces, making them easy to handle. Enlarged pictures and a matte finish accommodate visual deficits and reduce glare. The images come from Norman Rockwell's famous Saturday Evening Post cover art. Miller says that many residents she's worked with remember the images, and that even the date on the cover sometimes can jog memories.
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Using the same images, Miller also began designing playing cards, eventually developing three games. Each is suited to a different stage of memory loss. Residents with shaky hands can easily handle the oversized cards, and the rules are simple: match images face up.
All of these activities boost concentration and hand-eye coordination, draw on memory, and require the use of problem-solving skills. Perhaps best of all, these simple activities restore precious memories to the elderly, and allow caregivers and family members to create new memories.