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Engaging Activities for People with Dementia: Boosting Wellbeing and Connection

By Julie Hayes | 07/14/2023

An older couple doing a puzzle together

Dementia remains a highly stigmatized disease, often leading to misunderstandings about the capabilities and needs of older adults affected by it. Caregivers may unintentionally overlook the importance of meaningful hobbies, activities, and pastimes for individuals with dementia due to their perceived disconnection from the world around them.

However, it is crucial to recognize that, despite the changes brought by dementia, older adults still require engagement regardless of the stage of the disease. Neglecting stimulation can worsen their condition and contribute to feelings of depression, neglect, and isolation. On the other hand, active engagement offers numerous benefits for older adults affected by dementia. According to the Alzheimer Society, keeping your loved one engaged in activities can:

  • Contribute to a sense of purpose and accomplishment
  • Build self-confidence
  • Establish a comforting routine
  • Provide an outlet to improve past skills
  • Reduce boredom
  • Boost positive feelings and stave off depression

What are some engaging activities for people with dementia?

Your loved one will likely have their own preferences about the kind of activities they’re interested in. Their past interests are a great place to start, so if your loved one once played an instrument or loved listening to audiobooks, you’ll probably have better results if you try those options first.

It’s also important to provide a positive environment for your loved one to practice, learn and make mistakes without being judged. If they’re coloring outside the lines or filling in sudoku squares with letters instead of numbers, as long as your loved one is happy, empowered, and not feeling frustrated by the activity, you don’t need to correct them. If you provide support and enthusiasm, your loved one is much more likely to come away from the activity with positive feelings.

Here are some activities to consider:

Music: Music has a powerful impact on individuals with dementia, evoking positive emotions and sparking memories. Music-based activities you can try with your loved one include:

  • Singing along to favorite songs
  • Playing instruments
  • Drumming or humming
  • Watching videos of performances

Some communities around the country have even formed choirs specifically for people with dementia. If your loved one loves to sing, you can search online to see what the options are in your community.

If you’re interested in involving your loved one in music therapy, check out our article on its benefits for people with dementia.

Art and Crafts: The arts can promote self-expression, improve mood, and provide a sense of accomplishment. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Painting and coloring
  • Collage making
  • Paper folding
  • Clay sculpting
  • Scrapbooking

Puzzles and Memory Games: Puzzle and memory-oriented games can help stimulate your loved one’s brain and potentially slow decline. Jigsaw puzzles are a popular option, because they come in various difficulty levels and can be solved multiple times.

Simple matching games involving pictures and shapes can also sharpen your loved one’s skills. However, remember that being corrected or criticized may detract from your loved one’s enjoyment. If you want to help them towards the correct answer, do so with encouragement and praise.

Sensory Engagement: Sensory experiences can help engage the senses and evoke positive memories. It can be a particularly effective method for loved ones with both dementia and intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) because different senses can produce self-soothing sensations that also help in managing their secondary condition. 

Satisfying sensations vary greatly from person to person. Some individuals like touching different materials, like fabric, foam, fur, or even slime. Other enjoy making specific sounds, or playing with fidget toys like spinners or bubble sheets. If you pay close attention to your loved one’s reactions to different stimuli, you should be able to figure out what their specific interest is.

Gardening: Gardening is a great way to blend physical activity, relaxation, and sensory stimulation. Engaging in light gardening activities like watering plants or potting flowers taps into all these benefits while giving your loved one something to create and nurture.

Reading and Storytelling: If your loved one was previously a bookworm, they may respond to simple books and audio recordings of familiar stories. You can also encourage your loved one to share their own stories, without pressuring them to get all the details right. 

Animal Interactions: Petting animals can evoke positive emotions and reduce anxiety or agitation for animal lovers. If there’s an animal in your loved one’s life who is familiar to them, regular positive interaction will be appreciated by both parties! If not, look into professional pet therapy options in your area. Don’t introduce a new animal that isn’t properly trained, as this might agitate both the animal and your loved one.

Group activities: Last but not least, make sure socialization is still a part of your loved one’s activities. Communication is very important for people with dementia, as it helps minimize stress, loneliness and isolation. Your loved one will benefit from time with people they are familiar with, but it also doesn’t hurt to have them engage with their peers, including those who also have dementia. Many senior centers, adult day programs and other community organizations provide memory care activities in a group setting, such as music therapy and intergenerational projects. 

This article was written as a part of the Expansion of Dementia-Capable Communities within Urban and Rural Settings in Ohio using Evidence-Based and Informed Programming project, funded by the Administration for Community Living, Alzheimer’s Disease Program’s Initiative (#90ADPI0052-01-00). Learn more here.

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Activities for a Loved One with Dementia: Gardening

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Managing a Loved One with Dementia’s Sensory Challenges

Music Therapy for Dementia Care