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Memory Care Activities That Keep Seniors Active and Engaged

By Claire SamuelsMarch 31, 2022
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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.

“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.

1. Music therapy

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:

  • 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 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:

  • Compiling tapes of home videos for each resident
  • Screening well-loved shows and movies from the 1940s through the 1980s
  • 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. Here are some example therapies:

  • Offering collections of picture puzzles of varying difficulty
  • Encouraging residents to explore sensory boxes or boards for texture stimulation
  • Hosting games that inspire friendly competition, like matching tiles, identifying silly facts, or playing charades
  • Encouraging combinations of physical and mental stimulation, like tossing colored bags into colored baskets or dancing to different sounds
  • Providing workbooks, brain games, classic games, and puzzles that 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,” 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:

  • 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 saved to a tablet

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.

5. Art therapy

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:

  • Encouraging artistically inclined residents to express themselves using their medium of choice — as with music skills, artistic muscle memory can persist 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 feel, mold, and turn into something new
  • 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 communityor a contracted company. Pet therapy may include some of the following:

  • Staff helping less able residents stroke the soft fur of a cat or dog
  • Communities placing 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. Taste and scent therapy

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:

  • 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:

  • 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 memory care seniors

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.”

How communities adapt memory care 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,” 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:

  • Some residents drew and painted to create their own watermelon artwork.
  • Others received a piece of 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 pulls weeds.
  • Residents with impaired mobility use raised garden beds or planters.
  • Others participate by putting dirt into pots or using a watering can.
  • Even residents 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 activity ideas

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.

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,” 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:

  • A simulated office with a typewriter, phone, notepads, adding machine, and stamps
  • An indoor garden with 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,” Hash says. 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 the medical journal Dementia.
  • 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.

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Productive memory care activities make residents feel useful

“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:

  • 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,” 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.

There are many ways community activities and schedules may vary by resident population:

  • Rural communities may offer activities like canning and vegetable gardening that might not be as 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,” 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.

1. 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.

2. 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, like a trip to the beach.

3. 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 well-equipped sensory spaces than in-home caregivers.

Memory care activities calendar

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.

Here’s a sample memory care activities calendar.

Balancing activities for a well-rounded schedule

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):

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

Sources

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 residentsAmerican 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 reviewBMC Psychiatry.

Mitchell, G., McCormack, B., & McCance, T. (2014, August 5). Therapeutic use of dolls for people living with dementia: A critical review of the literatureDementia.

Petersen, S., Houston, S., Qin, H., Tague, C., & Studley, J. ( 2016, October, 1). The utilization of robotic pets in dementia careJournal 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 careBioMed Central.

ScienceDaily. (2019, May 9). VR can improve quality of life for people with dementia.

Author
Claire Samuels

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