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Dementia | Independent Activities for the Perso . . .
Independent Activities for the Person With Dementia
One of the most difficult things to watch is someone with dementia who can no
longer do the activities he once enjoyed, and who no longer knows how to
initiate new activities himself. These often lonely and bored adults tend to
either follow on the heels of family members all day or spend far too many hours
in front of the television.
It's well and good to talk about great activities for those with dementia,
and there are plenty of lists of things you can do together with your loved one.
But what about activities that don't require you to sit with your elder and
guide them through the activity. There are times when caregivers need a break,
too. Having a quiet activity that will keep someone with dementia occupied, even
if only for a few minutes, can provide a welcome break for you, too.
While "studies" have shown that challenging mental activities may help to
reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's or another dementia in later years,
the purpose of the activities we're talking about is not to treat or cure a
dementia that is already well-advanced. The purpose is to give your person with
dementia something entertaining to do without your participation, and something
that can provide a real sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment is
something that our elders with dementia don't experience often enough.
When we're looking for an activity that someone with dementia can do alone,
we generally avoid anything that must be done "correctly." Instead, we look
primarily for things that can be manipulated, stacked, stuck together, or sorted
in any way imaginable. If the person doing the activity likes the results, then
they are successful.
Start with one or two things that you think your elder would like. There's no
point in buying or putting together a collection of activities until you see
what works. Keep in mind that cognitive abilities will continue to decline, so
you will probably have to look for ever-simpler activities over time.
Ideally, you don't want an "activity time." You want one or two of these
- let's call them "things to do" rather than "activities" - available in
the same place all the time. As your loved one wanders by, you want something to
catch her eye so she picks something up on her own. What she then does with it
should be up to her. Put a card table or similar work place in a very visible
spot. Set out no more than one or two things to do, and let your loved one
"discover" the possibilities. Change the items out from time to time. Leave the
most successful one out, remove the currently less successful one and replace it
either with something that worked well a while ago or with something new. You
don't need a big supply of "new" things to do, as they recycle well.
If your elder is not ambulatory, use something like a solid TV table that you
can put close to his chair. Offer no instructions and no examples. Just see what
he does with it.
Be prepared for pieces to go walkabout. For this reason, you don't want to
offer anything with very small pieces or things that will stain, dry out or
otherwise cause maintenance issues unless you plan to sit right there, too. And
that defeats the purpose of independent activities. No paint, no markers, no
If you have children or visiting grandchildren, they will often be entranced
by your "things to do" table and will draw your elder into their play. Be sure
to let them know that items must stay on the table, as Gramps or Grammy can't
get down on the floor to play.
For inspiration, here are some examples of manipulative activities that have
been enjoyed by many people with Alzheimer's Disease or another dementia, both
at home and in special care facilities:
Items that use "muscle memory" are quite popular, especially among
the men. Short pieces of threaded pvc pipe or nuts and bolts that can be put
together in various combinations often work very well. You can go to the
hardware store and purchase a selection, or you can buy a plastic set like this
one from Amazon. If you buy your own, make sure to get the biggest nuts
& bolts, and the shortest threaded pvc pieces.
If your gentleman with dementia is still fairly high functioning,
something like this power tool set might be just the thing. We saw it in
action at an assisted living facility not too long ago. A tool kit like this one
requires a bit too much focus and motor skill to be rewarding for someone in the
later stages, however.
Legos and Duplo Blocks are too small and difficult to separate, but
Mega Bloks are just the ticket for free-form building and
stacking. You might think these would be too juvenile, but surprisingly, they
are popular with both men and women. Start with just a few pieces, as the whole
container can be overwhelming in the beginning. We show you this picture from
Amazon, and you can also find these at many larger toy stores.
Chenille sticks, also known as pipe cleaners, are great fun.
You'll need a good supply of these if they are successful because they do get a
bit bedraggled after several uses. Avoid chenille sticks if you have any
concerns about your person with dementia hurting herself with the ends, which
can sometimes be sharp.
Wooden puzzles are also good if they don't have too many pieces. Depending on
the status of your loved one, wooden three- to ten-piece puzzles are usually
best. You'll find a good selection of these in high quality toy stores and on
the web. Avoid cardboard puzzles as they bend too easily and then the pieces
don't fit well. Big pieces with knobs are much easier for someone with dementia
to handle, and they are harder to lose.
A lifelike baby doll is often the best thing you can make
available to a woman with dementia. The maternal instinct seems to be eternal.
Many women, and sometimes even men, seem to find great comfort in holding and
caring for their babies.
These examples should kick-start your imagination. Click around on good toy
sites like Kazoo Toys, the Senior Corner Store, or Amazon for more inspiration.