(American Association of Retired Persons) Melanie, a music therapist, regularly played live classical music for a Chicago woman who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. The woman used to frequent the opera and classical music venues, but for some reason, the songs did not seem to resonate with her. Melanie then played a Frank Sinatra CD. Immediately, the woman’s eyes lit up. Frank’s crooning, instead of the live sounds of the flute and guitar, really moved her.
For people with Alzheimer’s disease, a successful activity, whether it’s listening to music or playing a game, helps create meaning and pulls from past interests, says Cameron Camp, Director and Senior Research Scientist, Myers Research Institute of Menorah Park Center for Senior Living. Activities allow the person to be part of a family and community and gives him or her the chance to be more engaged with life.
“The biggest thing to remember with a person with dementia is that they’re a person with dementia,” says Camp.
There will always be part of that individual who wants to help, participate, and succeed. Although as the caregiver you will want to find activities that take in account lost abilities, you should always focus on the person and not the disease. Even if your loved one does not remember the activity, the joy he feels from taking part in a project, big or small, leaves a positive effect and contributes to an overall sense of happiness.
Why Activities Help
Although they don’t necessarily slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, activities do improve your loved one’s quality of life. Games, housework, and the other activities listed below can lessen agitation and depression. Activities can also help maintain motor skills that aid daily tasks such as buttoning a shirt or recognizing household objects. Projects that match a person’s skill level also give her a sense of ownership and independence. And when your loved one completes an activity, she gains a sense of accomplishment.
Activities also help relieve a caregiver’s frustration by keeping the loved one stimulated and by fostering emotional connection and self expression.
- Create meaningful activities. This is not about filling the day – no busy work. Try for activities that your loved one used to do and enjoy.
- Assess skills. Can they sort objects by size or color? Can they button shirts and zip up jackets? Can they follow written commands? Modify activities to make them more or less challenging to fit the skills of your loved one.
- Play up past interests. People with Alzheimer’s often maintain old habits and abilities. Try adapting these skills into smaller and more manageable components. Create games based on their interests.
- Make activities failure free. If your loved one is involved and happy, don’t correct him. The goal is to engage the person with dementia and encourage a sense of success.
- Keep activities simple. Too many decisions may frustrate people with Alzheimer’s. Keep crowds and noise to a minimum.
- Give both verbal and visual instruction. Feel free to tell and to show. If your loved one is accepting, even guide his arms gently as you instruct.
- Do activities that let your loved one manipulate materials. For people with advanced dementia, avoid small objects that might be swallowed.
- Select the best time of day for your loved one. More energy in the morning? Go for a walk. More focused in the afternoon? Try an art project.
- Keep the work area safe. Work with unbreakable plastics; keep the surface clean, uncluttered and well lit.
- Be prepared with alternate activities. If your loved one doesn’t connect with an activity, be sure to have another ready. Through trial and error, you’ll find activities that best suit your loved one.
- And don’t be afraid to try something new, to see if it arouses curiosity.
- Repeat favorite activities, and establish a routine. Note the activities your loved one enjoys. Although the patient may not remember them the next time, she may repeat the processes instinctively. While doing familiar activities, such as sorting objects, keep the procedures the same, but try different content from day to day to keep it fresh for her and for you.
Activities to Try
- Simplify old hobbies. For those who liked to knit, try a simpler pattern. If they enjoy crossword puzzles, try a jigsaw puzzle with large pieces.
- Garden together. Basic, repetitive tasks such as raking may fulfill your loved one, especially if he gardened in the past. Use herbs or other nontoxic plants that arouse multiple senses.
- Find her inner artist. Paint with watercolors, draw with crayons. People with Alzheimer’s may not judge themselves as harshly as they once did, so they may finally free their inner artists.
Exercise helps everyone, including people with dementia, to maintain a healthy appetite, get a good night’s sleep and achieve a happy, endorphin-boosted outlook.
- Take a walk.
- Go for a swim.
- Participate in a yoga or tai chi class at your local community center. Simplify by picking only a couple of moves to try, or watch a yoga tape together.
- Visit a therapeutic garden. These provide walking paths, bird feeders accessible to those in wheelchairs, and sturdy furniture for older adults. Gardens provide a safe environment to reconnect with nature, get a little exercise and absorb some vitamin D.
- Sorting games. Sort objects by color, shape or design. Infuse the game with your loved one’s favorite hobbies. For example, baseball fans can sort cards by team or position. If your loved one enjoyed carpentry, have him match tools with their names.
- Play ball. Use balloons or large, soft balls to play catch.
- Shopping scavenger hunt: Collect sales ads from newspapers with your loved one. While you travel the aisles with your loved one, give her a list of items to search for in the grocery store. Up the ante and search for items with the lowest cost.
- Solve puzzles. Create jigsaw puzzles from family photos. Cut them into two or three large pieces to start. You can divide the photo into more pieces to make the activity more challenging.
- Shuffle a prayer. Type lines of their favorite prayer on separate pieces of paper for re-ordering.
Daily Tasks and Chores
- Read together. Read the paper or book with large print. Take turns, and have fun.
- Bake together. Pick simple recipes for cookies, muffins and pancakes. Put him in charge of part of the recipe or an easier task, such as stirring.
- Clean up together. Ask your loved one to help you around the house. By doing simple tasks such as wiping off the table, sweeping the patio, washing the silverware, folding towels or simply holding open the trash bag as you put things into it, she becomes part of a team. Remember that she may not perform the tasks to perfection, but it is the process that is important.
By helping others, you can help your loved one combat feelings of uselessness.
- Start a food drive. Collect canned goods and other nonperishable items from your neighbors or grocery store. Get your loved one involved, whether she selects the items or helps you load the bags.
- Participate in a toy drive. Collect, wrap and take the toys together to a women’s shelter or orphanage.
- Talk about old times. Encourage your loved one to remember a favorite summer, first day of school or wedding day. Keep in mind, though, that painful memories may also resurface.
- Watch family videos. Pull out old movies or make a new one where family members discuss their fondest memories of your loved one.
- Go through photo albums. Old pictures can trigger pleasant memories.
- Watch a favorite movie or TV show from their past.
- Go through a box of trinkets from their life.
- Write down family stories. Keep a book of the memories your loved one has related, and ask her to read it to the grandchildren.
Some music therapists have found that adults with advanced Alzheimer’s often respond to music, and especially music from their past. In fact, researchers have found that the ability to process music remains intact into the late stages of the disease.
- Trigger old memories. Play their favorite hymn, music from their youth or well-known popular songs of their day. Make a CD of their favorite songs.
- Dance. If they enjoyed dancing, they probably still do, or at least will respond to the sight of others dancing. You could attend a dance class and sit in the audience.
- Sing along. People with Alzheimer’s often retain melodies and words to popular songs. Print out the words to a song and sing along with a CD. Or sing with a group while someone plays a piano or guitar.
Here’s a source of unconditional love. Pets convey their needs in ways that everyone, including people with Alzheimer’s, easily understands, and they provide comfort. Relax by watching birds from a window or fish in an aquarium.
Remember that as Alzheimer’s advances, your loved one will retain all of his or her senses.
- Talk to him. While your loved one may not respond, this doesn’t mean that he is not aware of your presence.
- Comb her hair.
- Moisturize her skin.
- Shave his face.
- Give her a manicure or a hand massage with scented oil.
- Give her dolls with zippers and buttons to play with or soft teddy bears, textured cloth, or fur to stroke.
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