Activities are one of the most powerful things you can do with a person with dementia to increase their well being and help them to calm down and reduce agitation. We all like to be engaged and productive and persons with dementia have the same needs. Research shows that dementia-friendly activities increases positive feelings, helps access buried memories, and reduces challenging behaviors, especially in the afternoon, during sundowning. And the happier and calmer the person is, the happier you’ll be as the caregiver.
Here caregivers share with you ten simple but powerful therapeutic activities that brought the persons they care for greater enjoyment of life and helped them to calm down. Try several and see which ones work in your situation. You should see the most success if you find a good fit between the activity and the person’s current abilities and interest otherwise they may find the activity too stressful or infantile.
1. Listening to & singing favorite old songs
There are a host of inspiring stories of people who rarely talk, don’t even remember their name, but can sing along to Oh Susannah or I Left My Heart in San Francisco. Listening to music is one of the most powerful activities you can do to help bring back pleasurable memories to the person. One Person’s Story. “I can just listen to music and feel that I’m doing something that I just love to do. I can’t make music anymore, but I can certainly use it for my own intentions – which are just to be beautiful.” Excerpt from Partial View: An Alzheimer’s Journal by Cary Smith Henderson, Southern Methodist University Press, 1998.
2. Watching short videos
Inspiring videos (popular ones include nature, music, babies, animals, etc.) can bring tremendous joy and elicit feelings of wonder and curiosity for some individuals.
Caregiver Tip: “When my mother would get agitated, watching a nature video really helped calm her down.”
3. Going for a walk
Fresh air and a change of scenery can lift the spirits, but give a destination instead of just saying “Let’s go for a walk.”
Caregiver Tip: “My mother and I loved going for walks, but she couldn’t go very far without needing to rest. So I bought her a walker with a seat, and we would walk a block and then she’d take a break. She loved just sitting and watching the children and dogs go by. It made all the difference in her mood.”
4. Looking at magazines or picture books
Whether it’s an old favorite from the past (we found these magazines from the 60’s for $1.00 each at a local second hand store) or a travel or nature book, large photographs can help a person access memories from their past.
Expert TIP: You can get a conversation going by asking, “What do you like (or see) in this picture”? Dale Thielges, Recreation Therapist, Alzhiemer’s Assocation.
5. Reminiscing over family albums
Engaging the person in discussion about pleasurable events and persons from their past is a popular and highly successful activity. You can use your own scrapbooks or buy one that’s ready made – complete with thoughtful questions and comments to say to the person to evoke positive memories.
Caregiver TIP: “Some of the most enjoyable times I had with Mario was looking at our family albums. You should be prepared however in case they ask you where the people are that you’re looking at. If the person has died and they still think the person is alive, they may get upset if you tell them they’re no longer with us.”
6. Enjoying an aromatherapy massage
Aromatherapy Massage, with essential oils like lavender or lemon, has been shown to increase positive feelings and reduce agitation. A hand massage mid-afternoon can be very pleasant – for both you and the person you care for.
Caregiver TIP: “My mother experienced “sundowning” and would get very agitated in the afternoon. I learned that this was a key time to keep her occupied with pleasant activities. And research has shown that aromatherapy hand massage was very effective for reducing agitation. My mother loved it and benefited from its calming effects.”
7. Keeping the hands busy
Keeping the hands busy can be an enjoyable activity for some, while providing mental, sensory, and tactile stimulation. Whether it’s peeling carrots, doing large puzzles, folding colorful scarves, or fiddling with a lock and chain activity board, caregivers report these simple activities often bring hours of contentment to the person.
Expert TIP: You’ll have more success by saying “I need your help…,” or “I could use your opinion…,” or “Could you help me with…” These expressions indicate to the person that they are valued, that someone needs them, and increases the likelihood that they will want to go do something with you.” Dale Thielges, Recreation Therapist, Alzhiemer’s Assocation.
8. Visiting with pets
Pets can have a soothing and uplifting effect, and for some, can elicit memories from their past.
Caregiver TIP: “I visited Burt once a week during the last six months of his life. He loved his visits with Goldie – and she loved visiting him. She would jump into bed with him and wouldn’t budge until we left. Burt wasn’t speaking much then, but during one visit, much to our amazement, he began telling us stories from his childhood in West Virginia, and about his dog, Butch. Those were very happy times I spent with him.”
9. Getting a manicure
For some women, this is a pleasurable activity, at all stages in the disease.
Caregiver TIP: “My boyfriend’s Aunt Michelle was living in a nursing home. The staff and family complained about her agitated behavior and the family was visiting less and less. Since my mother had dementia, I knew how relaxed she became when I did her nails, so I offered to give Michelle a manicure. She so enjoyed it, she blew me kisses when I left. Now the family is giving her manicures too!”
10. Enjoying a meal or snack together
The simple ritual of afternoon tea or sharing a tasty snack or meal can be made more enjoyable in a sunny room with brightly colored tableware.
Caregiver TIP: “Carlos showed more interest in eating after I served him smaller portions on bright plates. We sit by the kitchen window and watch the birds at the feeder as we have our snack. It’s our quiet afternoon ritual.”