Like everyone, seniors who have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia benefit from feeling engaged and productive. Memory care communities offer activities and entertainment to encourage social interaction, reduce anxiety, stimulate the brain, and inspire feelings of accomplishment among their residents.
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“We’re providing the care they need, but we’re also providing them with the engagement and opportunities they’re interested in and passionate about,” says Libbi Hash, national director of wellness and memory care programming at Kisco Senior Living, based in Carlsbad, California.
Matching residents with activities they enjoy yields impressive results: A well-rounded selection of therapies can slow cognitive decline and memory loss. And according to the National Institute on Aging, studies suggest that a mix of calming and stimulating activities reduces reliance on medication and can reduce the occurrence of dementia behaviors like wandering, aggression, and restlessness.
Learn about eight popular therapies used by memory care communities, how these communities develop and adapt group activities to dementia patients, and how memory care activities and engagement stations can encourage personal success and slow memory loss. Plus, check out a sample memory care calendar with memory care programming ideas.
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As a whole, dementia therapies soothe, stimulate, and engage all five senses. Together, various therapies help slow cognitive decline, lower anxiety, decrease the risk of falls, reduce the use of antipsychotic medication, and promote well-being, according to studies by the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.
Communities adapt programming to their residents, but they generally aim for two primary categories of activity: comfort and stimulation.
“We have the comforting aspect, which can include pictures, videos, and memorabilia, and then we have the stimulating side of the program, which is more puzzles and cognitive games,” says Angela Martinez, executive director at Traditions at Reagan Park, a memory care and assisted living community in Avon, Indiana.
Here are eight popular memory care therapies.
Music and dementia research by the U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests that listening to familiar music can enhance memory, lower stress levels, reduce agitation, and improve cognition. Communities use music therapy in a variety of ways, including these examples:
Through faces, shapes, colors, and sound, video therapy engages seniors’ brains. Plus, videos of familiar locations and people calm seniors with dementia by transporting them to favorite places and memories. Video therapy may include the following:
Stimulating therapy works to combat boredom, which can lead to anxiety, restlessness, and wandering. Communities plan stimulating therapy based on each resident’s level of cognitive ability. Here are some example therapies:
Familiar items can be soothing and therapeutic to seniors experiencing dementia.
“Each resident has a prop box individualized for them — their box contains both comforting objects and stimulating items centered around their life history, interests, and the things they enjoy,” Martinez says. “That box can be used by any of our team members, or the resident can use it independently if they aren’t interested in a group activity or choose to reminisce alone.”
Memory box items may include any of the following:
Visiting relatives can use the memory box as a conversation starter, Martinez says. A selection of familiar things can offer families quality time together without the pressure of finding something to talk about.
Crafts for memory care residents offer a creative outlet, no matter the residents’ level of skill or cognitive ability. Painting, drawing, and crafting allow freedom of expression and a chance to exercise fine motor skills. Even looking at art may improve memory and cognition, according to a 2018 study of 250 memory care residents in the medical journal Trials.
Communities use art therapy in a variety of ways:
Interacting with pets decreases loneliness and increases positivity. Animal-assisted therapy can also improve physical health, lower blood pressure, encourage activity, and improve eating habits in people with dementia, according to a 2019 review of studies on pet therapy.
While some memory care facilities have a community pet, it’s more common for therapy dogs or cats to visit from an assisted living communityor a contracted company. Pet therapy may include some of the following:
Memory care communities work to engage all five senses. Scent therapy uses smells like coffee, Christmas trees, and freshly cut grass to recall strong emotional memories for residents. Scents and flavors can elicit memory more quickly than sights and sounds. This is because our brains process smells immediately and subconsciously.
Aromatherapy is the fastest-growing complementary treatment in memory care, according to Sunrise Senior Living. Communities may encourage residents to engage with their senses by doing some of the following things:
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The sense of touch can increase feelings of trust and relaxation while reducing aggression, tremors, and picking, research shows. Communities use tactile stimulation in a variety of ways:
Dementia care has come a long way since it became widely recognized in the late 1980s. In the past, activities for memory care patients were grouped based on the patients’ level of cognitive decline, resulting in less stimulation for people with late-stage dementia. Now, activities for memory care residents are based on their interest.
“When a new resident moves in, we learn their likes, dislikes, and interests,” Hash says. “We create activities and encourage participation based on those passions.”
Whether group activities center on a particular therapy, special occasion, or favorite hobby, the key is to provide an entry point for each resident or a way for them to participate and feel included — regardless of their stage of dementia.
“As residents transition through their journey and aren’t as capable, we can modify what they’re doing so they’re still able to participate,” Hash says.
National Watermelon Day
Celebrating holidays like National Doughnut Day, National Puzzle Day, and National Grandparents Day is one way memory care facilities foster community. Holiday celebrations add excitement and variety for residents. Martinez credits memory care activities director Makayla Keith for her creative approach to adapting activities so everyone at Traditions could celebrate National Watermelon Day:
Similarly, memory care communities often enable gardening enthusiasts to enjoy their hobby no matter their level of cognition. Hash explains how it comes to life at Kisco:
Bouquets on dinner tables and in visitor areas brighten up the memory care environment for everyone, even those who don’t enjoy gardening.
Group activities are a cornerstone of memory care, but independent exploration and work also benefit seniors with dementia. By encouraging seniors in memory care to gravitate toward their own interests through hands-on projects, communities promote feelings of accomplishment and self-sufficiency. Engaging, rewarding activities reduce anxiety and slow cognitive decline for seniors with dementia, studies show.
Autonomous engagement stations — also called life skills stations — are a fixture in many memory care communities.
“If a resident is restless at night and wants to get up, the autonomous areas are a safe setting where they can go and engage in an activity that brings them comfort or a sense of satisfaction,” Hash says.
Since many older adults with dementia mentally revert to a time when they were younger, engagement stations often simulate everyday situations for residents from decades past. They typically vary based on resident populations: You might find a farm-like setting in a rural area or a robust office setting in a large city, for example.
Life skills stations may include many different occupations:
“Everyone has a need to feel useful, no matter what stage of life they’re in,” Hash says.
Staff at memory care communities create opportunities for those with dementia to continue to be productive in ways that give them meaning and joy. This approach, sometimes called the Montessori Method or life skills engagement, involves helping seniors revive skills and interests — even if physical abilities have deteriorated from dementia — rather than redirecting them to easier tasks.
“If you love to cook, even if you’re in memory care, you’re going to gravitate toward the kitchen. Rather than redirect someone, I’m going to sit them down with some dough to knead, or another safe activity, and let them go ahead with whatever they want to make. That usefulness makes a resident feel like part of something bigger.”
Memory care calendars may include various life skills to help residents feel accomplished and motivated. Some examples could include everyday activities:
Person-centered care for dementia uses personal histories, stories, and interests to help residents thrive in memory care communities.
“One thing that’s so easily overlooked when you’re dealing with the senior population is that if you get to know someone, find commonality with them, and take the time to figure out what their likes and dislikes are, it’s much easier to support them,” Hash says.
By understanding preferences, pasts, and emotional needs, a community can design activities to best fit each resident’s personality, interests, and abilities. But memory care communities also consider the group of residents, in addition to individual interests, to create their monthly activities calendar.
“As our resident population changes, so do our autonomous stations, the activities we plan, and even the hours we do things,” Hash explains.
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There are many ways community activities and schedules may vary by resident population:
Engaging technology can slow cognitive decline and improve mental health in seniors with dementia, according to a 2019 report in the Journal of Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders. This can lower restlessness, anxiety, and reliance on medication. Technology can also help memory care communities appeal to residents’ individual histories and interests.
One tool commonly used in memory care communities is iN2L (an abbreviation of “it’s never too late”), a program designed to curate meaningful, personal content for seniors.
“You click a button and the resident’s profile pops up,” Hash says. “We have everything that individual is interested in pre-loaded. They can pull up pictures, games, a travelogue, or their favorite music.”
This type of personalized technology offers seniors with dementia the opportunity to scroll through memories, videos, and other soothing options on their own time. If a resident is feeling restless or having a hard time falling asleep, they can interact with the system until they feel tired.
Here are three other stimulating technologies that memory care communities use to engage seniors with dementia.
With internet live streams, memory care communities can visit zoos, aquariums, and museums around the world. A group of birdwatchers could enjoy the soothing bird calls of a wildlife preserve, while art lovers may be stimulated by a group “tour” of the Louvre in Paris. Memory care communities may augment these virtual experiences with props: For instance, the birdwatchers could play with binoculars, look through a field guide, or touch soft feathers.
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. Many tech-forward memory care communities incorporate VR devices from companies like MyndVR and Oculus Rift for both group activities and individual stimulation. Multiple residents could interact in the same virtual simulation, like a trip to the beach.
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. Dementia care communities are often able to provide much larger and well-equipped sensory spaces than in-home caregivers.
Before moving a loved one into memory care, it’s important to get a sense of the activities offered to residents. When touring, ask for the community’s memory care activities calendar. One should include all the activities offered by staff each month, along with the specific times your loved one can expect to participate. Activities calendars often feature games, light exercise, brain training, social events, stimulation therapies, and club meetings.
To ensure days are well-rounded and cater to residents’ emotional, physical, and mental well-being, Kisco communities offer six main categories of memory care activities (real-life examples follow each category):
Many families choose a memory care facility based on its robust memory care activity programming. To learn more about dementia care near you, including prices and activities, contact one of A Place for Mom’s local senior living experts. Their guidance comes at no cost to you. Together, they’ve helped hundreds of thousands of families find senior living for their loved ones.
Mowrey, C., Parikh, P. J., & Bharwani, G. (2012, November 29). Application of behavior-based ergonomics therapies to improve quality of life and reduce medication usage for Alzheimer’s/dementia residents. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.
Marx, K. A., Scott, J. B., Piersol, C. V., & Gitlin, L. N. (2019, March 5). Tailored activities to reduce neuropsychiatric behaviors in persons with dementia: case report. American Journal of Occupational Therapy.
Klimova, B., Toman, J,. & Kuca, K. (2019, September 6). Effectiveness of the dog therapy for patients with dementia – a systematic review. BMC Psychiatry.
Mitchell, G., McCormack, B., & McCance, T. (2014, August 5). Therapeutic use of dolls for people living with dementia: A critical review of the literature. Dementia.
Petersen, S., Houston, S., Qin, H., Tague, C., & Studley, J. ( 2016, October, 1). The utilization of robotic pets in dementia care. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
National Institute on Aging. NIA-funded active Alzheimer’s and related dementias clinical trials and studies.
Mahendran, R., Gandhi, M., Moorakonda, R. B., Wong, J., Kanchi, M. M., Fam, J., Rawtaer, I., Kumar, A. P., Feng, L., & Kua, E. H. (2018, November 9). Art therapy is associated with sustained improvement in cognitive function in the elderly with mild neurocognitive disorder: findings from a pilot randomized controlled trial for art therapy and music reminiscence activity versus usual care. BioMed Central.
ScienceDaily. (2019, May 9). VR can improve quality of life for people with dementia.
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