By Meredith Kimple
When an older loved one is diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, we must prepare ourselves for a thousand changes. Among the many difficult adjustments we make to preserve a sense of normalcy, perhaps one of the most challenging is finding engaging activities for our loved ones.
Your parents and grandparents may once have enjoyed playing instruments, watching movies, reading novels, solving crossword puzzles, cooking, or dancing. However, cognitive impairment often renders these and other activities either too difficult or entirely impossible; tasks that require concentration, coordination, and memory may become a source of frustration and confusion rather than enjoyment.
While we all want our older loved ones to participate actively in the world around them, finding such opportunities isn’t always an easy undertaking. For those of us who care for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it can be extraordinarily difficult to balance the demands of daily life with supervising and entertaining our loved ones. Activities that they once enjoyed, the activities that we first attempt, may no longer provide them with a sense of fulfillment.
Whether you’re facing this challenge for the first time or are convinced you’ve tried everything, hopefully the following list will give you some fresh ideas.
- Household Chores
While many of us would agree that household chores don’t exactly scream “fun”, they can provide our loved ones with a genuine sense of accomplishment. When we ask our parents or grandparents to assist us with these daily responsibilities, we give them an opportunity for active participation in their environment. Being allowed to contribute can make them feel useful and necessary, and this does wonders for their self-image. The trick is finding tasks that are easy enough for them to complete, which will depend largely upon the severity of your older loved one’s cognitive impairment. Watering the plants, setting the table at meal times, collecting the dirty dishes, polishing silverware, dusting, sweeping, and making their bed are just a few examples of tasks that are simple and straightforward; you may have to help them complete these assignments, or even “re-do” them, but the important thing is that your older loved one feels included.
One popular activity for those who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is the sorting and organization of various objects. Give them a box filled with different colored beads, miscellaneous buttons, or coins; have them sort these items into groups based on similarity. This activity not only offers them a clear, specific objective, but also engagement with colors and textures that stimulate the senses, which can help to keep them interested for a prolonged period of time. You can also have them organize mismatched pairs of socks, or have them help you sort papers and old photos.
- Food Preparation
Depending on the degree of their cognitive impairment, your loved one may be able to prepare simple dishes with your help and supervision. For their safety, do not let them use a knife, the stove, or the oven by themselves; there are plenty of recipes that do not require the use of these appliances, but you will have to help them measure, cut, and cook. If you don’t have the time for them to assist you with meals, or you are concerned about their cleanliness, assign them responsibility for preparing their own afternoon snacks. Peanut butter on celery or crackers, pre-sliced veggies and dip, and instant pudding mix are all easy and safe to prepare.
- Arts and Crafts
Painting, knitting, scrapbooking, decorating ornaments, and other crafts are an excellent way for our older loved ones to express themselves. If they are not interested in creating their own art, coloring books are a great alternative; they don’t have to come up with an idea for the picture, but they can color the printed image however they’d like. These activities can be performed alone or with the whole family, so they’re incredibly versatile.
Music not only stimulates the mind, but also brings old memories to life. If your older loved one used to play an instrument or simply loves listening to music, putting on a favorite CD or the radio can provide hours of relaxation. While you can certainly play music that has lyrics, classical or instrumental music may be the more relaxing option, since there are no words for them to follow.
It’s difficult to see our bookworm loved ones struggle to finish novels; being unable to follow or remember the details of a story may make reading a frustrating task. Instead, provide them with books of photos that pertain to an old interest or a favorite place; there are plenty of subjects to choose from, including kittens, Renaissance paintings, and the Irish landscape. If they remember family, or even if they don’t, you can give them family photo albums to look through. Magazines and catalogs with plenty of pictures are also a great choice.
While you probably do not have the time to sit and watch television with your senior loved one all day, taking an hour or half an hour to spend with them may make this solitary activity more fun. Sitcoms, game shows, and nature documentaries do not rely on a plot or complicated story, so these may be better options. Old home movies are another great way to relive memories; your senior loved one may not remember everyone or everything they see, but they’ll still enjoy watching these filmed moments (especially cute baby videos). If you see a funny YouTube or Facebook video, share it with them! They may not understand what is happening, but the important thing is that you make an effort to include them in something you enjoyed.
Sometimes, the best thing is just to get out of the house and go do something fun! Bring your older loved one with you to run errands, like grocery shopping or picking the kids up from their various activities. If you have the time, take them window-shopping; smell candles and soap, touch interesting fabrics, and admire sparkly jewelry. Stores provide a lot of interesting sights and textures, and walking around from aisle to aisle gets in a bit of exercise too! Visit botanical gardens, the planetarium, or have a picnic in the park.
Finding fulfilling activities for our cognitively impaired loved ones is no simple task. We may find that at first they love one activity, only to watch them grow disinterested as they experience further cognitive decline; or, like most of us, they still crave variety. Through the unsettling changes that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia bring, one of the most important things we can do is to reinforce our older loved ones’ comfort and sense of self-worth. It is beyond painful to watch the people we love standing in a confused daze, bored, isolated, and at a complete loss for how to spend the hours we race through; there is a sense that they have infinite time, and nothing to fill it.
As challenging as finding ways to include them can be, leaving them lost and detached from their surroundings is twice as difficult. We should strive to provide them with plenty of opportunities through which to interact with the world, and to feel a sense of pride in their accomplishments. When they complete or contribute to a task, no matter how small, we should cheer for them, and cheer loudly.
In the mad scramble for normalcy, we tend to forget that “normalcy” is itself merely a series of adjustments. Instead of futilely wishing for things to remain the same, let’s focus on giving our older loved ones a sense of belonging, through every adjustment.