Dementia is not one specific disease. It describes a collection of symptoms caused by a number of disorders affecting the brain and affects intellect, rationality, memory, social skills and physical functioning. According to Dementia Australia, an estimated 487,500 Australians are currently living with dementia.
- Common symptoms include:
- Personality change
- Apathy and withdrawal
- Loss of the ability to perform everyday tasks
- Progressive and frequent memory loss
At present, there is no prevention or cure for most forms of dementia, however, some medications have been found to reduce some symptoms. Support is vital for people with dementia. The help of families, friends and carers can make a positive difference in managing the condition, including focusing on providing games and activities for dementia patients.
Strategies for people living with dementia
People living with dementia need a quality of life that is not diminished. Their abilities can vary greatly depending on their age or stage of dementia, but keeping them active and involved in the things they enjoy is extremely important. Using routines, strategies and support that best suits their individual needs will allow them to engage in meaningful activities, even if they need to be modified. When considering activities for those with dementia:
- Think about all that has made them unique, including their work history, hobbies, lifestyle, travel, social and recreational interests and significant life events.
- Make use of skills they have not forgotten, including encouraging an area of responsibility, no matter how small.
- Help them enjoy anything that gives meaning to their life or provides them with a sense of relaxation or pleasure.
- Give them the space and time necessary to do as much as possible while focussing on one thing at a time. Communicating one instruction at a time and breaking down activities into simple, manageable steps can help.
- Ensure spaces have good lighting, individual seat preferences, limited noise and distractions and uncluttered surfaces.
- As their abilities can fluctuate daily, adapt and try activities another time if they are not enjoying them.
- Pick a time of the day when they are at their best level of functioning. For example, some may find walking is best done in the morning or early afternoon. Others may be particularly restless later on in the day or have had a particularly long or meaningless day, so a late afternoon walk may be better.
- Try not to over-stimulate. Some individuals with dementia find large groups of people overwhelming. If this is the case, avoid noise, crowds and constant movement.
- Allow an emotional outlet. For many people with dementia, music or contact with animals or children can stir positive emotions. The opportunity to relive treasured moments can also be deeply satisfying.
- Ensure activities are consistent and suited to their individual needs. It’s also valuable to know what helps to divert or calm them when they are distressed or restless.
Activities for dementia in care homes
There are a range of activities for dementia in care homes, many of which can also be done if your elderly loved one is still living at home.
Outdoors walks can be incredibly relaxing for dementia patients and are a good way to exercise
A person with dementia gains the same benefits from regular exercise as anyone else, including improved strength, cardiovascular fitness and endurance. Some to consider include:
- Chair exercises. These are great for seniors with limited mobility. Seat your loved one in a comfortable chair, sit down facing them and then encourage them to move. Play some stimulating music, and then start moving your head, arms, legs, shoulders and feet. You can also try tossing them some props back and forth — like scarves, pom poms or small balls — which can help with coordination.
- Slow marching. An excellent exercise for balance but also for the knees, hips and ankles. Start slowly, marching to the front and then to the side. If they need stability, ask them to hold a chair in front of them.
- A walk outdoors. This will provide exercise and the opportunity to take in the scenery and focus on how the breeze and sun feel.
- Water exercise. The buoyancy of water makes water exercise a fantastic low-impact setting for those with dementia while also providing a natural resistance to build muscle.
- Restorative yoga. This is a lower intensity form of yoga focused on posture, breathing and gentle movements. Yoga can improve flexibility and balance, which is important for seniors who have a higher risk of falls.
- Dancing. Whether it’s ballroom dancing or simply moving to a favourite tune from their childhood, encourage your loved one to move to the music. These types of activities can enhance their mood, increase self-expression, and reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. If they sing as well as dance, it will also raise their energy levels and provide a sense of self-worth if others notice and respond to their voice.
Creative activities like arts and crafts are excellent at stimulating the senses
Sensory stimulation is the activation of one or more of the senses, such as taste, sight, smell, touch and hearing. Sensory stimulation can improve cognitive symptoms, increase alertness and concentration and facilitate communication. Some to consider include:
- Art, crafts and music. All of these involve a creative process. Creativity typically resides in a part of the brain affected by dementia. Art can help them express themselves, crafts can assist with their fine motor skills, and music can provide an alternative mode of communication.
- DIY “fidget box”. This is a great way of exploring the sensations of sight and touch. Fill a box with items of different colours and textures. These can include items with zips, toys that wind up, stress balls for squeezing, a piece of soft fleece or faux fur, a brightly coloured Slinky … the list is endless! You could also add scented items that are strongly tied to their memories, like soap or holiday scents like pine, peppermint or coconut, which will up the enjoyment ante!
- Massage. Dementia “spa time” activities are not only enjoyable but calming. Give a hand and arm massage with a scented lotion (a lavender-scented one is ideal), or a foot soak in some warm, aromatic water followed by a foot massage.
- Gardening. Not only sensory, gardening is also physical, so it can help improve flexibility, strength and mobility. The smell of freshly potted plants and blooming flowers can also be incredibly inspiring.
- Spending time with animals and children. Both offer unconditional love and appreciate cuddles! This enhances tactile sensation, reduces feelings of anxiety, and often brings those with dementia out of their shell.
- Taking them for a drive. Regardless of where your destination is, simply getting out and exploring new things can be a rewarding experience for someone with dementia. Visiting a zoo, art gallery, museum, fruit farm, cinema, enjoying high tea or even going to a sporting event can stimulate a variety of senses.
- Reminisce about the past. People with dementia often have excellent memories of past events. The benefits of reminiscing for seniors — including viewing and touching books, photo albums and memorabilia — can improve their quality of life, reduce stress, eliminate boredom and improve their communication skills. On the taste and smell side, bake them their favourite childhood treat, or better still, let them help you do it!
Games for dementia patients
Simple jigsaw puzzles can exercise both sides of the brain
In terms of games for dementia patients, there are endless possibilities available, but some of the more popular ones include:
- Jigsaw puzzles. Research has shown that jigsaw puzzles release dopamine (the “feel good” chemical) in our brains. For people with dementia, it can also challenge them mentally by stimulating and exercising both sides of the brain — the left side, which is responsible for order and logic, and the right side, which is responsible for creativity and intuitive thought. And any level of completion can result in a wonderful sense of achievement and increase self-worth.
- Crosswords. Crosswords have many benefits from enhancing problem-solving skills and reducing stress to improving cognitive ability and enhancing memory and visual perception. And again, any level of completion is beneficial.
- Colour-by-numbers games. Focusing the mind on a simple, calming activity like colouring can encourage positive thinking and enhance brain activity. It can be particularly beneficial for those with dementia as colouring may slow the progression of memory loss.
- Memory games. They can help seniors to keep their minds sharp and include online games like Solitaire, chess and checkers, apps like Soduku and Wheel of Fortune and non-electronic games like Scrabble, Monopoly, backgammon and bridge.
Resources also worth investigating include:
- A Better Visit app. Released in 2019 as a result of a partnership between Dementia Australia, Lifeview Residential Care and Swinburne University of Technology’s Future Self and Design Living Lab, this free iPad app was released in 2019. It is fun, stimulating and interactive, and includes music, simple games like Go Fish and Noughts and Crosses, and images of iconic Australian locations. It was designed in a co-creative process with people living with moderate and advanced dementia and their visitors, with Lifeview commenting, “We observed after the gameplay, the resident living with dementia’s mood would be more upbeat and often that positive mood would continue on even after the families had gone home.”
- Retail websites. Websites like Senior Style and Dementia Shop Australia offer a range of products for sale for people living with dementia. These include resources that develop memory and fine motor skills, from puzzles, quizzes and games to sensory kits, stress balls, crafting activities and doll and pet therapy.
Most importantly, when it comes to providing activities for dementia patients, don’t give up! It is possible to continue living a good quality of life with dementia, despite any challenges that may be faced along the way.
Mistakes can happen, so it is vital you don’t let the individual with dementia ever feel like a failure. Encourage them to keep trying and to continue engaging in activities that provide a sense of purpose, relaxation and pleasure. It is also important to encourage activities that provide mental stimulation and promote better health and wellbeing.
- 2022, What is dementia, Dementia Australia
- 2022, Dementia statistics, Dementia Australia
- 2022, Activities for people with dementia, Dementia Australia
- 2019, Dementia Australia releases new app for A Better Visit, Health Direct Australia
- 2019, Activities for Dementia Patients: 50 Tips and Ideas to Keep Patients with Dementia Engaged, Seniorlink
- 2022, 12 Benefits of Solving Crossword Puzzles for Seniors, Gamesver