It isn't always obvious how best to entertain a loved one with Alzheimer's or dementia. Activities like chores, gardening, and reminiscing about the past can help keep people busy — and be a mood booster, too.
Dementia can be anxiety-provoking for both the people living with it and their loved ones and caretakers. People new to caregiving or to neurodegenerative diseases might be wondering: What do people with dementia enjoy? How do you spend time with someone with dementia? As Alzheimer’s progresses through the brain, it can affect the ability to speak, see, move around, remember things, and more, and that can feel limiting. But, there are a number of expert-vetted ways to entertain someone living with neurodegenerative disease — activities that provide both a source of common ground and a sense of calm.
What activities are good for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia? The activities a person used to love might be too difficult or complicated, or maybe they’re not showing interest in things that once held their attention. How do you keep someone with Alzheimer’s busy? Finding the ideal activity might come from an unexpected source: For instance, Loretta Veney’s’ mother, Doris, found solace in playing with LEGOs. Even when verbal communication was no longer possible, the LEGOs gave mother and daughter something to do together. They provided a sense of connection.
“She no longer remembered who I was,” Veney told Being Patient, “but our lifelong connection through LEGO bricks kept our communication and engagement alive.” Not everyone has LEGOs on hand — but here are nine other options of engaging activities well suited for many people living with Alzheimer’s and related forms of dementia.
How do you spend time with someone with dementia?
People living with dementia might have difficulty planning their day as their ability to structure time begins to falter. Activities planned by caretakers or family members can be good to ease this sense of discomfort. Planning activities at a consistent time every day helps mimic the familiarity of an old routine.
As a person living with dementia spends time with new activities, their loved ones and caregivers can assess if they are capable and content to do activities alone, or if they need help and supervision.
Get started with these ideas, and then think of the individual in your life to imagine more activities for their well-being.
1. Chores can be a good thing
A chore is an activity that will both provide an ease on the burdens of caregivers and routine for the person with Alzheimer’s, according to Dr. Aron S. Buchman at Rush University Medical Center’s Department of Neurological Sciences. Buchman has done research on the benefits of getting up and moving around the house each day — even if it’s to do something as simple as sorting mail or folding laundry.
“A more active lifestyle may have a protective effect on the brain,” Buchman said of a recent study on daily movement for people living with dementia. “People who moved more had better thinking and memory skills compared to those who were more sedentary and did not move much at all.”
Shannon Halloway, an associate professor at Rush University, echoed the benefits of household tasks for older adults in a comment to Being Patient.
“Household activities are a great option for older adults, particularly those who may have concerns about going outside their home,” Halloway said. “It’s free, you have to do these activities anyway, and we know that our home is ideally a safe place to be.”
2. Work it out
“Exercise has immediate effects on the brain,” Dr. Wendy Suzuki told Being Patient. “It changes the neurochemical bath that your brain is bathing in; I like to call it a neurochemical bubble bath that you’re creating with exercise because it is increasing positive things like serotonin and dopamine that are making you feel good and putting you in a good mood.”
That neurochemical bubble bath does triple duty as an activity for people living with Alzheimer’s by boosting mood, taking up time, and improving overall health.
3. Go for a stroll
Spending more time outdoors is good for everyone and contributes to healthy living regardless of age or condition. Something as simple as walking can get the body moving, get some Vitamin D into the system, and feel fresh air. Fresh air can reduce stress levels and agitation for people with dementia.
A 2020 study shows that the type of thinking you engage in while walking can further boost the effectiveness of walks. The researchers called these ‘awe walks’ – purposefully tuning into the splendor of nature and noticing one’s surroundings in greater detail. The participants reported feeling “compassion and admiration for the world around them.”
Study author and associate professor of Neurology at the University of California San Francisco Virginia Sturm said that finding awe in your surroundings can “lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being.” Trial participants also showed a reduction in daily distress after their walks.
4. Spend some time in the garden
For more time in the sun and fresh air, try a regular gardening routine. A 2021 study looked at the effects of horticultural therapy – interacting with plants in myriad ways – on the cognitive function of people with dementia. The study included plenty of activities that can be done in a backyard or even with indoor plants: planting, cooking with plants, and making plant-based crafts. Horticultural therapy reduced apathy in dementia patients in just ten weeks.
Joel Flagler, a horticultural therapist and professor at Rutgers University, responded to the study findings: “Any time a person reconnects with nature, good feelings and healing can come,” he told Being Patient. “It’s important to remember that the plant doesn’t discriminate: The plant doesn’t care if the person has dementia, or they’re in a wheelchair, the plant is ready to respond to that person.”
5. Give a friend or family member a call
Loneliness and isolation are bad for the brain, but older adults with dementia may find it anxiety-inducing to interact socially in the same ways they used to. That doesn’t mean they should give up on social interaction altogether. Instead, help them find ways to catch up and stay engaged that fit their comfort levels
It can be challenging to make social plans out of the house, whether it’s due to one’s physical condition or to the pressures of the outside world like the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, modern technology offers many ways for people to stay connected to loved ones, and the benefits are research-backed. A recent study shows that utilizing digital programs like Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, and more to stay in touch can improve cognitive health and delay severe dementia symptoms.
Sarah Dulaney, a nurse coordinator at the University of California San Francisco’s Care Ecosystem study, told Being Patient in an interview: “It’s important to try to help people with dementia participate [in a call] as much as they can — and also recognize when they need rest.” We all know that feeling of Zoom fatigue, so make sure you’re staying attuned to everyone’s comfort level.
6. Get cooking
Cooking, like doing chores, is a beneficial activity for people with Alzheimer’s disease while also helping out other people in the household. Though people living with Alzheimer’s will have different ability levels when it comes to being in the kitchen, in many cases it’s possible to find tasks that are both safe for the individual and helpful for the rest of the household.
Enomwoyi Damali describes in an essay cooking with her mother even as her dementia progressed to a point where it became challenging for her mother to follow instructions: “The easiest solution would be to do the salad myself,” Damali wrote. “But Mom loves to help with the cooking. And I believe it’s good for her to be involved, doing something she can manage and enjoy.”
Damali recalls changes she has made in the process, like giving her mother one ingredient at a time to work with, demonstrating each step, and learning to monitor the process to avoid mishaps.
7. Turn on the music
People love to play music because it brings people together across differing circumstances, and dementia is no exception. Music can bring temporary levity and engagement to people living with Alzheimer’s disease, but it also has long-term effects. A 2018 study looked at people attending a community adult health center and found that 20 minutes of music could boost mood and cognitive function.
Music therapists help caretakers integrate music into their practices. Concetta Tomaino, a music therapist and the co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurological Function, told Being Patient in a live talk, “Maybe sing some of the songs. If you like to dance, put on some music. Being mobile actually helps with balance and coordination,” she said. “If there’s an upbeat song that you can play to do some exercise and movement, that’s really great.”
8. Make some art
The arts are a wonderful activity for people with dementia because they can evoke emotions and memories that are hard to access as a person’s condition gets more serious. They can help people communicate and express themselves when traditional avenues of communication feel closed off.
People who were artists in their early adulthood years can find solace in continuing to create art after a dementia diagnosis. In contrast, others who never saw themselves as artists can find their creative side as they find new ways to express themselves once they’re living with dementia.
When Dr. Daniel Potts’ father was diagnosed with dementia, he began painting in watercolor while spending time at an adult day care center. Dr. Potts used his father’s journey with creativity to inform his own work with patients.
Of his father’s work, Potts said: “I think one of the things that was happening was that because of the supportive care he was getting and because of the opportunity to create and be in the moment, he was able to access some of those remote memories and bring them out and support his own personhood.”
9. Take a trip down memory lane
Reminiscing is incredibly meaningful for people with dementia and their families. It can be a fun and joyful experience for older people to meander through memories without the pressure to focus on anything specific. Try looking through a scrapbook or photo album, and seeing what memories come up. Even if you’re hearing the same stories repeatedly, try to hold in any frustration or boredom. Psychologist Douwe Draaisma refers to oft-repeated memories as a ‘nostalgia factory,’ wherein the act of repetition brings pleasure. Some therapists have even begun to develop “reminiscence therapy programs” to formalize the benefits of thinking back on fond memories.
It can also be comforting for people with dementia to discuss older memories because recent memories have been lost and older memories remain. Dr. Andrew Budson, chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and professor of neurology at Boston University, explains it as such: “Your mother is talking more and more about things that happened long ago, because those are the memories that are the ones that are present for her. The newer memories may have been lost by the Alzheimer’s process.”
Activities for loved ones with dementia
Spending time with a loved one will not be the same after a dementia diagnosis. Teepa Snow, an occupational therapist and dementia care educator, told Being Patient: “One of the hardest things to recognize is that we can’t have what we used to have. We are going to have to be willing to let go to some extent. That doesn’t mean give up on it, but we can’t have it be the thing that guides. Trying to duplicate what we had before is going to result in a feeling of, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t enough.’”
Instead of staying attached to old patterns, explore new activities or new ways of doing old activities that can forge new ground in the relationship. Alzheimer’s is an individual process, and it takes time to figure out what works for your loved one. Depending on your circumstances, these activity ideas can be done at home, within a community, or with friends and family.