Caring Currents

Why People With Dementia Need Daily Exercise

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Exercise has been called the "Fountain of Youth" for its countless health-preserving benefits, including safeguarding against mental declines. But what about an elder parent who already has dementia?

Keep her sipping -- or better, swimming in -- that fountain! Daily exercise improved mental ability by 30 percent over a one-year period in older people with dementia, says a new small Korean study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. The women (average age 80) also improved their ability to feed, dress, and bathe themselves . The control group of those with dementia that didn't exercise showed no gains.

True, helping a loved one exercise is one more "thing to do." But it can be a fun thing. Here are some nudges to help get started.

"But she's never exercised before!"

Think like a tortoise -- start slow, go slow. It's the "go" that's the operative word. Find the right pace and don't push. Some exercise exists for most people, from those with early dementia and no other ailments who can do aerobic-level activity, to the wheelchair bound who may prefer simple range-of-motion movements.

"I can't bring my parent to the gym!"

Perhaps not -- a gym can be overwhelming for someone with dementia. Try these alternatives:

  • Tai chi (find a DVD and try it at home; helps balance too)
  • Walks around the yard (stick together if you head beyond a fenced area)
  • Gardening (learn about Alzheimer's gardens here.)
  • Water exercise (check local Y's or senior centers; ask if you can take classes together)
  • Rote household chores: hanging laundry, dusting, washing a car.
  • Stationary bike
  • Simple stretches and strength training (try using canned goods as a light weight).

"But it won't help reverse these mental declines."

Reverse? No. Slow? Perhaps. And last weekend I saw two other benefits to helping a loved one with dementia get physical activity, as I watched my own dad (age 86, probable vascular dementia) sloooooooooowly wade through a pool:

  • Exercise is a mood lifter. It reduces the incidence of anxiety, aggression, and depression in people with Alzheimer's.
  • Exercise is a stress reliever. And who needs a stress-reliever more than you, the caregiver? Even if you can't run or swim laps with your loved one, at least you'll be moving about with her. Maximize the benefits by arranging a substitute caregiver so you can get in a real workout later by yourself, even if it's just three or four times a week.