Seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia desire and benefit from connection and fulfillment, just like everyone else. These stimulating, interactive activities for seniors with dementia offer fun, creative, and productive ways to spend time with your loved one.
Creative activities for seniors with dementia
Tailoring activities based on a senior’s talents and interests is helpful, says Niki Gewirtz, a Senior Living Advisor at A Place for Mom and former executive director of a memory care community. She enjoyed getting to know residents’ hobbies before they came to memory care and using that information to personalize activities.
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Think back or ask relatives and friends about your loved one’s passions and strengths. Then, encourage them to do similar things.
Try knitting or crochet Put a homemade quilt or skein of yarn in your aging relative’s hands. Let them feel the weight of the quilt and the scratchiness of the yarn. They may still be able to crochet or knit a little bit, even if they have serious memory or cognitive deficits.
Experiment with sounds If your relative with dementia was a musician or loved music, introduce simple instruments or sing-alongs. For seniors with mild cognitive decline, musical ability might outlast other memory functions. For those with more advanced impairment, nursery rhymes, maracas, and tambourines can still encourage creative expression.
Encourage visual expression Painting and drawing are ways to express feelings safely and with creativity. Encourage using bold, bright colors on big surfaces. Rolls of butcher paper enable seniors with dementia to create without encountering the stress of defined spaces.
Create sensory experiences with tactile crafts Working with slippery clay or malleable play-dough is a way for seniors with cognitive decline to benefit from tactile stimulation and creativity. Gewirtz suggests feeling a variety of objects with different shapes, sizes, and textures, as well as rubbing hands in lotion.
Combine happy memories and creativity via collages Cut out images from magazines or print old ads and articles. Choose subjects that fit your loved one’s interests, like cooking, cars, or fashion. Another idea is to scan and print old family pictures. Let your family member with dementia arrange and rearrange the elements to create pictures or scrapbook pages.
Reminiscing activities for seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s
Reminiscence therapy uses sensory or visual cues from the past to help seniors reconnect with positive memories. Instead of asking direct questions that could be confusing or stressful, try gentle guidance. For example, if you’re looking at childhood photos, ask generally about growing up rather than where an image was taken.
Look through photo albums. Photo albums with pictures from your loved one’s childhood or young adulthood can bring back favorite memories. You can also scan or take digital pictures of old photos to create books. Joan Lunden, A Place for Mom spokesperson, shared this tip in an interview about her mother. “When I would open up those books and my mom would see the old pictures, she would talk and talk and talk. It was like the mom I always had was there with me.”
Watch old movies and TV shows Did your aging parent grow up watching westerns like “Gunsmoke” or “My Darling Clementine”? Did they prefer musicals like “The King and I” or “Singing in the Rain”? You can find old favorites at your local library or streaming online. Add some movie snacks for a fun family activity!
Listen to music and sing “Music can awaken the brain, and with it, the rich trove of memories that are associated with familiar songs,” according to the nonprofit group Music and Memory. Stream classics or sing memorable songs like holiday carols. Sing-alongs and music classes were more common in mid-century schools; you might be surprised at how many songs your loved one remembers from childhood.
Explore history through catalogs and magazines Before malls and big-box stores, people did most of their shopping from catalogs. They stayed up to date on news and trends with magazines. Try to find original copies or reprints of magazines they enjoyed in their younger years, like Life, Cosmopolitan, and the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Try Good Cooking or Old Farmer’s Almanac for seniors who used to spend time in the kitchen or work in the fields.
Fulfilling activities for dementia patients
Seniors with dementia, like all of us, enjoy the feeling of a job well done. Failure-free activities provide daily accomplishments and increase feelings of self-worth. Choose an activity based on the person’s level of cognitive decline — ideally something that will make them feel productive.
Fold laundry Laundry is a familiar activity for most seniors, especially women. Soft fabrics and a repeated motion can be calming. Plus, classic detergent smells may elicit comforting memories. Start with easy items like hand towels and T-shirts. Avoid items like fitted sheets and buttoned shirts that could be challenging.
Simulate handy tasks If your aging relative always loved to tinker, suggest a project with visible results. Painting wooden boards and fitting together PVC pipes are good activities for seniors with high motor function. Wooden or plastic play tools provide a similar experience for people with more advanced dementia.
Untie knots Tie loose knots along a thick rope. The elderly person may enjoy untying them, though avoid making the knots too tight or using a rough rope.
Do a puzzle Pick a puzzle with large, tactile pieces. Wooden color or shape puzzles help with matching and are fail-safe.
Sensory activities for people with dementia
Stop and smell the roses (or coffee, fresh cut grass, or warm bread) Studies suggest smells trigger more vivid emotional memories than images, according to Harvard scientists. This is because scents are processed by the hippocampus and the amygdala, the same parts of our brains that control memories. A familiar smell — like flowers from a childhood garden or freshly baked Christmas cookies — can elicit positive memories and emotions. Conversely, it’s important to avoid smells that cause anxiety. Diesel fuel and gunpowder are common PTSD triggers for older veterans.
Explore familiar objects Tactile exploration can bring up memories that may not be accessible through pictures or verbal prompting. Even if your loved one doesn’t remember their first car or their wedding, the feeling of weighty keys or hand-embroidered pearls could encourage reminiscence.
Have a taste of history Like smells, tastes can elicit emotions and memories. Your mom’s famous chocolate cake could bring back birthdays; a sip of instant coffee could recall quiet, early mornings at home.
Feel diverse textures Unique textures provide sensory stimulation, as well as memory cues. If your aging family member is a pet lover, consider the soft fur of an animal. If they liked to garden, suggest touching damp soil or leaves. Textures can also be used for fulfilling activities — try making a bag of fabrics or blocks to be be sorted by touch.
Technology-based dementia activities for seniors
Technology use has wide-reaching health and safety benefits for seniors. Immersive tech can also provide mind-stimulating activities for Alzheimer’s patients and those with dementia.
Explore the world with live cams Zoos, nature preserves, and aquariums around the world offer Internet livestreams for animal lovers. Many art museums, like the Louvre in Paris, offer continuous live tours of their galleries. If your loved one enjoyed traveling, global monuments like the ancient pyramids of Egypt offer video streams as well. Since it constantly changes, live camera footage can provide visual stimulation to otherwise house-bound seniors with dementia.
Travel through time and space with virtual reality Virtual reality (VR) technology can help people with dementia recall past memories, reduce aggression, and improve interactions with caregivers, according to a small study of dementia patients using VR by researchers at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. Companies like MyndVR offer senior-specific devices for memory care communities and home use.
Snoezelen rooms provide immersive stimulation Seniors experiencing significant cognitive decline may not be able to participate in activities they enjoyed during the early stages of dementia. Snoezelen rooms are full of sensory stimulants, from tactile surfaces to calming sounds and lights. Games for dementia patients — like rotating discs or musical buttons — can be added to increase anxiety-free interaction.
Claire Samuels is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She worked with senior living communities throughout the Midwest before pivoting to writing. She’s passionate about sharing ways of living well at any age.