Living with Dementia: Activities That Can Help

Living with dementia can be a challenge. This is true for the individual enduring this journey—and for the caregivers providing support. Since everyone is unique, finding the right activities and providing appropriate support is key. More importantly, it’s essential to focus not on the disease, but on the person: who they were, who they are, and who they are becoming.

Connecting to the Past

Since long-term memory may remain intact longer than short-term memory, it’s helpful to tap into pleasant experiences and hobbies an individual previously enjoyed. Offering life-review activities—like looking at old pictures, recalling key events, and playing favorite tunes—often support recall. In fact, music  not only helps individuals connect with the past, but can also be a means of nonverbal communication with caregivers, making it an ideal stimulus for persons with dementia.

However, it’s important to remember that some memories may be unpleasant—even traumatic. Addressing the mental health needs of individuals is recommended by Dr. Tonya Davis, a core faculty member in the online Masters in Counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Counseling can play an important role both in this context and in dealing with such a difficult diagnosis. Dr. Davis highlighted the importance of such support: “For someone who may have just received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, imagine the difficulty of grasping this new information and all that it might mean for the patient and family alike. Psychoeducation provided alongside the various aspects of the counseling process can make room for emotional and mental support as clients and their families work to make sense of the diagnosis.” Dr. Davis says that by providing the right support, counselors can equip and empower clients and their families with the tools and resources needed to “maintain homeostasis and experience forward movement.”


Adapting to the Present

Having a sense of purpose and being able to engage with others are important to your loved one’s well-being. However, changes in cognition may impact the types of activities they can participate in. If that’s the case, you’ll need to adapt accordingly to meet their needs. AARP provides some general guidelines about how to do it:

  • Make it meaningful—by including activities your loved one enjoys. Examples may include taking a walk in the sunshine or heading out for their favorite food.
  • Make it realistic—by assessing if your loved one has the skills to complete the task. They may have enjoyed playing cards in the past, but if they begin to struggle, either adjust the game or switch to something more basic.
  • Tap into the past—by adapting activities to engage former habits and abilities. If your loved one was an artist, provide them with familiar tools so that they can paint again. If they loved music, put on a favorite tune and encourage your loved one to sing along.
  • Encourage success—by forgoing correction and focusing on enjoyment. If your loved one doesn’t fold clothes the way you’d like or makes up new rules for a familiar game, just let go of the need to be “right” and enjoy the experience together.
  • Keep it simple—in terms of decisions and the surrounding environment. Activities that require a lot of decision-making can be overwhelming, as can a chaotic environment. If your loved one wants to help make dinner, provide a quiet place to complete a simple task, like folding napkins or setting the table.
  • Mix it up—with verbal and visual instructions provided in a gentle manner. Your loved one may benefit if you demonstrate simple activities or chores while explaining the process.
  • Make it hands-on—by using materials that can be manipulated and are safe. Tactile objects like Play-Doh®, felt boards, and watercolor paints support both creativity and safety.
  • Optimize engagement—by selecting the time of day when your loved one functions best. If morning is better than late afternoon, plan an outing to the farmer’s market instead of playing a board game at the end of the day.
  • Be flexible—by having a back-up plan in mind. Changes in cognition may mean that what worked yesterday may not work today. Always have an alternate activity available that isn’t as much of a challenge.
  • Be adventurous—and willing to try something new when needed. Did your loved one like to swim in the past? Consider an outing to the local pool. Was your loved one a nature lover? Perhaps you can take a walk in the woods.
  • Repeat what works—since structure can help. Although new adventures can be a great thing, many individuals with dementia benefit from having a routine they can count on. If your loved one looks forward to sitting on the porch at the end of the day, be sure to include it in your routine together.

Maintaining Healthy Habits

Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Physical activity can minimize stress and support overall health, and mental activity may impact cognitive impairment. The Alzheimer’s Association provides key recommendations for those who have a dementia diagnosis.

When choosing physical activities, select those that are:

  • enjoyable to promote consistency,
  • engaging, mentally or socially, to promote relating with others,
  • appropriate to one’s history with exercise,
  • safe, since falls create an additional risk,
  • approved by a physician if it’s something new.

In terms of mental exercise, the Alzheimer’s Association encourages activities that provide a mental challenge, including:

  • learning a new skill,
  • adopting a new hobby,
  • studying a new subject,
  • joining a cause as a volunteer,
  • finding a book club,
  • engaging in any other low-cost activities that will expand your loved one’s social life.

Although living with dementia is difficult for everyone involved, choosing the right activities for the individual and getting needed support can help. Those caring for loved ones with dementia can implement these activities to improve quality of life for their family member. Combined with counseling, these activities can open the door for a more comfortable life for those with dementia.