Senior Living

Before I started my graduate study, I volunteered at one of the nursing homes to help with activities for the residents. As a homemaker and a caregiver for young children, I had little knowledge about older people’s needs and interests. Since then, I have worked with experienced and dedicated activity directors, two amateur painters, and a student intern who had lots of new ideas.

Many of the residents didn’t think they were artistic enough to join the step-by-step instructions on painting, but were curious to try new things. We had offered various activities such as book club, threading beads, making cookie ornaments, preparing seasonal decorations, finger painting and making art from shaving cream. A couple who owned a karaoke machine visited the facility once a month, and engaged not just the residents, but the staff and volunteers too. We all sang, hummed and swayed to the rhythm, even when we were unfamiliar with the song.

Despite the popularity of these activities, they couldn’t suit everyone’s needs, because they were not built on personal interests. While most long-term care facilities still have not adopted person-centered care, care partners at home have an advantage because they know the interests of their loved ones with dementia.

Here are some tips for finding engaging activities for elderly family members living with dementia. Purposeful engaging is possible through simple activities. To determine which activity could be the most meaningful, think of the person’s occupation, what they enjoyed doing and made them happy. Always adapt activities to fit a person’s abilities such as mobility, communication level, and sensory processing. In their daily routine, try including physical (body movement), cognitive (involves thinking), and social activities (interacting with others), but allow adequate time for relaxing.

Tips to keep in mind when offering activities include:

• Think of activities that are stimulating, but are not too difficult to follow.

• Give adequate time between instructions and wait for the person to complete a step before giving the next.

• Plan shorter activities; people with dementia can find it challenging to keep their focus for a long time.

• Assist if needed, but do not complete the activity for them.

• Activities that involve easy, repetitive action and simple steps are manageable for a person even with advanced dementia. It is fine if they might be more interested in doing the activity than getting to the outcome. For example, mixing cookie dough by hand might be a fun, stimulating activity for the individual, but they might not want to be involved in the baking part.

• Try not to overstimulate; pay close attention to their reaction. If they lose interest, alter the activity, switch to a different one, or take a break.

Here are some specific project ideas. For reminiscing, create a memory box or a photo album with their favorite objects and pictures. If they can recall stories related to the object/photographs, write them down using their words. This will come in handy later when they can’t remember them.

Include sensory stimulation: try to offer something to taste, smell, see, hear and touch. Use bright colors, playful movements, and funny sounds to catch the attention of an individual.

There are many activities that bring simple joy:

• The smell of morning coffee or flowers and herbs.

• Traffic noises from the street, farm animals’ sounds, singing along to familiar music, reading favorite books, ringing of the church bell, sharing family stories, listening to a playlist of favorite music.

• Holding hands, touching familiar objects, petting animals.

• Watching documentaries from their younger years, looking out the window watching people go by, children playing or birds feeding, car rides to experience seasonal changes.

• Tasting favorite food, drinking something cold or warm, tasting familiar spices in meals.

• Feeling the wind or the warmth of the sun on their skin.

• Helping with simple chores like sweeping, gardening, flower arranging, folding clothes, sorting items, washing cars, organizing tools.

• Walking, exercising and dancing.

And, very importantly, here is a message for caregivers:

• Find the best time and place for you and the person with dementia before offering any activities.

• Keep realistic expectations; enjoy these moments spent together with loved ones rather than trying to finish the task.

• Use humor at difficult times, it helps to adjust to the many changes in the person and the challenges you face together.

• Take care of yourself first so you can have the health and strength to take care of someone else.

Meaningful activities that implement the person’s strength and interest could give a sense of purpose for them, strengthen their social skills, improve their daily activity performance, and their psychological and emotional well-being. As dementia progresses, one’s ability to communicate and perform declines. Giving them other means to express themselves could help them feel safe and relax, improve their mood, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

Rozalia Horvath is a Penn State Extension educator in Centre County.