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Memory Care Activities: How Communities Engage Seniors With Dementia

Claire Samuels
By Claire SamuelsOctober 28, 2020
Elderly woman and her caregiver participating in tactile therapy at an outdoor table.

Like everyone, seniors with 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.

“We’re providing the care they need, but 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 Carlsbad, California-based Kisco Senior Living.

Matching residents with activities they enjoy yields impressive results — a well-rounded selection of therapies can slow cognitive decline and memory loss. In addition, studies suggest a mix of calming and stimulating activities reduces reliance on medication and dementia behaviors like wandering, aggression, and restlessness, according to the National Institute on Aging. 

Learn eight popular therapies used by memory care communities, how facilities develop and adapt group activities for dementia patients, and how memory care activities and engagement stations can encourage personal success and slow memory loss. Plus, check out a sample day at a memory care community.

8 popular memory care therapies

As a whole, dementia therapies soothe, stimulate, and engage all five senses. Together, they help to slow cognitive decline, lower anxiety, decrease falls, reduce the use of anti-psychotic medication, and promote well-being, studies show.

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Communities adapt programming to their residents, but 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. 

Eight popular memory care therapies include:

1. Music therapy. Music and dementia research 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:

  • Playing classic records or tunes from a jukebox.
  • Encouraging musically inclined residents to play their instrument or sing. Often, music-related muscle memory remains even as verbal and mental abilities decline.
  • Hosting sing-alongs of hymns, holiday carols, or school songs.
  • Giving residents simple percussion instruments, such as maracas or shakers, to make their own music.
  • Hiring music therapists to lead weekly music classes for residents.

2. Video therapy. Through faces, shapes, colors, and sound, video therapy engage 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:

  • Compiling tapes of home videos for each resident.
  • Screening well-loved shows and movies from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
  • Transporting residents with footage of popular travel destinations.
  • Playing recorded concerts and events. Historical milestones, like the moon landing, can inspire treasured memories to surface.

3. Stimulating therapy. 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, and may:

  • Offer collections of picture puzzles of varying difficulty.
  • Encourage residents to explore sensory boxes or boards for texture stimulation.
  • Play games that inspire friendly competition, like matching tiles, identifying silly facts, or charades.
  • Encourage combinations of physical and mental stimulation, like tossing colored bags into colored baskets or dancing to different sounds.
  • Provide workbooks and brain games. Classic games and puzzles encourage problem-solving. Activities like matching games, mazes, and even simple mathematics can provide stimulating challenges based on each resident’s ability level.

4. Memory prop box therapy. 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,” says Martinez. “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.”


When a new resident moves in, we learn their likes, dislikes, and interests. We create activities and encourage participation based on those passions.

Libbi Hash, national director of wellness and memory care programming at Carlsbad, California-based Kisco Senior Living


Memory box items may include: 

  • A photo album.
  • A kitchen apron.
  • A treasured Christmas ornament.
  • A favorite painting.
  • A wedding dress, military uniform, or favorite item of clothing.
  • An audio recording of nature sounds or family voices.
  • Scented wax or sachets that smell like home.
  • A familiar tool, like a wooden spoon for a cook or sandpaper for a carpenter.
  • Home videos on a tablet or tape.

Visiting relatives can use the memory box as a conversation starter, says Martinez. A selection of familiar things can offer families quality time together without the pressure of finding something to talk about.

5. Art therapy. Art therapy offers a creative outlet for residents, no matter their 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 improves 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, including:

  • Encouraging artistically inclined residents to express themselves using their medium of choice. Often, artistic muscle memory remains even as verbal and mental abilities decline.
  • Providing old magazines or pictures for residents to create collages.
  • Playing slide shows of popular paintings or projecting tours of art museums.
  • Giving residents multicolored clay to manipulate, feel, and use to create.
  • Hiring art instructors to lead workshops or classes for residents.

6. Pet therapy. 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 community or contracted company. Pet therapy may include: 

  • Staff helping less able residents stroke the soft fur of a cat or dog.
  • Communities keeping tanks of colorful fish for visual stimulation.
  • Communities offering realistic, robotic cats or dogs for risk-free pet therapy. Interaction with robotic pets has been shown to have similar benefits to therapy with live pets.
  • An engaging bird for residents to help care for and feed.
  • Residents watching puppies or energetic dogs play outdoors or in common areas.

7. Scent and taste therapy. Memory care communities work to engage all five senses. Scents like fresh cut grass, coffee, and Christmas trees can 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:

  • Baking a classic gingerbread recipe to inspire holiday memories.
  • Planning an activity where residents guess the scents of essential oils or wax melts.
  • Brewing strong-smelling coffee each morning to get residents up and going with a familiar smell.
  • Using scents like chocolate chip cookies or apple pie to stimulate appetite.

8. Tactile stimulation. 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, including:

  • Encouraging residents to close their eyes and identify an object — like a stuffed bear or wooden spoon — by touch.
  • Collecting soothing fabrics, like velvet, fur, or silk, for dementia patients to sort.
  • Using a resident’s personal items — like a beaded wedding dress or favorite pair of cufflinks — to inspire reminiscence about special events.
  • Crafting diverse texture boards from materials like carpet, tile, sandpaper, or stones for residents to explore and identify.

Group activities for dementia patients focus on community

Dementia care has come a long way since it became widely recognized in the late 1980s. In the past, participants in memory care activities were grouped based on their level of cognitive decline, resulting in less stimulation for those with late-stage dementia. Now, memory care communities are more likely to encourage participation based on a resident’s interest. “When a new resident moves in, we learn their likes, dislikes, and interests,” says Hash. “We create activities and encourage participation based on those passions.” 

How communities adapt activities by interest and abilities

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,” says Hash.

National Watermelon Day

Celebrating “national days” and holidays like doughnut day, puzzle day, and grandkids 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.

  • Some residents drew and painted to create their own watermelon artwork.
  • Others received paper with watermelon outlines to fill in with tissue paper, like a puzzle.
  • Residents who don’t like arts and crafts helped cut open a watermelon and removed the seeds to count and sort.
  • Those in the later stages of dementia touched the watermelon surface and used melon-scented wax for tactile and scent therapy.

The celebration, of course, ended in all residents snacking on fresh watermelon!

Community Gardening

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.

  • An older adult with early-stage dementia plans a garden, plants bulbs, and weeds.
  • Residents with impaired mobility use raised garden beds or planters.
  • Others participate by putting dirt into pots or using a watering can.
  • Even those with significant cognitive impairment benefit from seeing fresh flowers, sitting in the sunlight, or experiencing the smell of the garden.

Bouquets on dinner tables and in visitor areas brighten up the memory care environment for everyone, even those who don’t enjoy gardening.

Independent memory care activities encourage interests and skills

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.


Everyone has a need to feel useful, no matter what stage of life they’re in.

Libbi Hash, national director of wellness and memory care programming at Carlsbad, California-based Kisco Senior Living

Life skills stations help seniors feel accomplished

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,” says Hash.

Since many older adults with dementia mentally revert to a time when they were younger, engagement stations often simulate everyday situations residents from decades past. They typically vary based on resident populations— you might find a farm-like setting in a rural area and a robust office setting in a large city, for example.

Life skills stations may include:

A simulated office with a typewriter, phone, notepads, adding machine, and stamps.

An indoor gardenwith pots, artificial plants, bulbs, and soil. “If the station is supervised, residents may be able to go and get their hands into the dirt and actually work with potted plants, or it could be artificial plants if the station’s not manned,” says Hash. “Residents could also make floral arrangements of artificial plants for the dining tables.”

A hardware store or workshop with blunt tools, smooth wood, and toolboxes.

A nursery or childcare station with dolls, a crib, bottles, and baby clothes to fold. Nurturing dolls increases engagement and communication and reduces symptoms of distress in people with dementia, according to a review of 11 studies in Dementia Journal.

A farm or animal station with bales of hay, farm tools, or realistic stuffed animals. With supervision, animal areas could include a community pet like a bird, cat, or fish for residents to care for.

Productive memory care activities make residents feel useful

“Everyone has a need to feel useful, no matter what stage of life they’re in,” says Hash. Staff at memory care communities create opportunities for those with dementia to continue to be productive in ways that give them meaning and joy. 


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.

Angela Martinez, executive director at Traditions at Reagan Park, a memory care and assisted living community in Avon, Indiana

This approach is sometimes called the Montessori Method or life skills engagement. It involves helping seniors revive skills and interests – even if physical abilities have deteriorated from dementia – rather than redirecting them to easier tasks. 

Hash uses a former baker as an example: “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:

  • Cleaning vegetables for the kitchen.
  • Clipping coupons.
  • Knitting hats for babies at a local hospital.
  • Making centerpieces for dining tables.
  • Delivering mail to other residents.
  • Helping sweep hallways or wipe tables.
  • Making felt blankets for a local animal shelter.
  • Buttering bread or setting the table for meals.

Personalized activities help dementia residents thrive

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,” says Hash. By understanding preferences, pasts, and emotional needs, a community can design activities to best fit each resident’s personality, interests, and abilities. 

Memory care communities 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,” says Hash.

Some ways community activities and schedules may vary by resident population include:

  • Rural communities may offer activities like canning and vegetable gardening that wouldn’t be popular in large cities.
  • Communities with many religious residents may offer more frequent services, devotions, and religious studies throughout the week.
  • Facilities with residents who worked overnight shifts when they were younger may offer select activities throughout the night.
  • Autonomous engagement stations can reflect popular local jobs and settings — if many residents were employed by a local factory, for example, there could be a simulated assembly line.

Memory care therapies use technology to connect

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,” says Hash. “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.

Other stimulating technologies memory care communities use to engage seniors with dementia include:

Live cams. 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. 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 — for example, a trip to the beach.

Snoezelen rooms. 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 more well-equipped sensory spaces than in-home caregivers.

A day in the life of a memory care resident

Memory care activities may vary by season, location, and mood, but a few daily traditions remain the same. A memory care resident’s day at Traditions may look something like:

9:30 AM — Starting up: Starting in the resident’s room each morning, the memory care staff set a positive tone. “This could include favorite music to encourage them to get out of bed and get dressed and moving,” says Martinez. Or a resident may be motivated by their favorite things — for instance, hot chocolate, chai tea, or coffee with milk and sugar may be awaiting them in the dining room.

10:00 AM — Morning moves: Memory care and assisted living residents tend to reject the idea of “exercise,” so morning moves inspires physical activity without those connotations. “Each day is based on the mood that morning — it could be dancing, stretching, ball toss, etc.,” says Martinez. “Makayla makes sure all residents can participate; those in wheelchairs or with different abilities may get one-on-one interaction or instruction.”

10:30 a.m.— Stimulating activity: Mid-morning could be used for a stimulating activity, like object sorting, art, story-telling, or memory sharing.

11:00 a.m. — BBET: An acronym for behavior-based ergonomic therapies, BBET focuses on music, video, stimulating, and memory box therapies. Behavior-based therapies may be independent, or they may be guided by memory care staff. Some communities offer music and video libraries for residents to choose from, while others maintain personal collections for each senior.

12:00 PM— Lunch: Midday meals offer nutritious options and time to socialize with other residents.

1:00 PM — Rest and relax: Quiet time allows seniors to nap, explore their memory prop boxes, or use autonomous engagement stations.

2:00 PM — Afternoon activity: Crafts, games like bowling or stacking, or spa services like massages, makeovers, and manicures are often options in the afternoon.

3:00 PM — Snack time: Residents can pick from healthy snacks that fit their individual diets. 

4:00 — Memory activities and chats: Activities like “How are you?,” “Story sharing,” and “Gathering wisdom” are options in the late afternoon.

5:00 — Dinner time: Favorite meals from the past — such as meatloaf, pot pie, and casserole—  are well-liked and common in memory care communities.

6:00 — Movie time: Classics from the 1950s and 60s may be popular choices for movie night.

Before bed: Evening activities vary, says Martinez. “Makayla may pick a topic to talk about while residents wind down for the day, then select a reading or Bible verse on that theme to inspire engagement or conversation while relaxing.”

Balancing activities for a well-rounded schedule

In order to ensure days are well-rounded and cater to residents’ emotional, physical, and mental well-being, six main categories of activities are offered each day at Kisco communities. Some examples of memory care activities from a Kisco calendar include:

  1. Cognitive skills like “Mind Benders” and “Finish it: Song Titles.”
  2. Life skills like “Coupon Circle” and “Baking Dog Biscuits.”
  3. Movement like “Moving to Music” and “Walk and Roll.”
  4. Sensory like “Make Scents” and “Sounds of the Season.”
  5. Music like “Groovin’ to Gospel” and “Making Music.”
  6. Socialization like “Happy Hour Social” and “Ladies Club.”

Learn about memory care activities at communities near you

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 A Place for Mom’s free Senior Living Advisors. Together, they’ve helped more than 300,000 families find senior living for their loved ones.


Sources:

American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias. “Application of behavior-based ergonomics therapies to improve quality of life and reduce medication usage for Alzheimer’s/dementia residents.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23196404/

American Journal of Occupational Therapy. “Tailored Activities to Reduce Neuropsychiatric Behaviors in Persons With Dementia: Case Report.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6436117/

BMC Psychiatry. “Effectiveness of the dog therapy for patients with dementia – a systematic review.” 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6731615/

Dementia. “Therapeutic use of dolls for people living with dementia: A critical review of the literature.” 
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1471301214548522

Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. “The Utilization of Robotic Pets in Dementia Care.”
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5181659/

National Institute on Aging. “NIA-Funded Active Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias Clinical Trials and Studies.” 
https://www.nia.nih.gov/research/ongoing-AD-trials#section2

“Art Therapy is Associated with Sustained Improvement of Cognitive Function.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6230219/

University of Kent. “VR Can Improve Quality of Life for People With Dementia.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190509080035.htm

Claire Samuels
Author
Claire Samuels

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.

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