Alzheimer’s disease is often known as “the long goodbye” not only because of its ability to affect someone’s cognitive and functional abilities, but also their emotions and moods, behaviour, and physical abilities. This can be tough to witness, but there are some ways you can continue to engage with the person by using games and activities to help stimulate their mind and senses.
Alzheimer’s disease affects everyone differently, so it’s often difficult to predict how it will progress, the symptoms (and the order in which they appear), and the duration of each stage to Alzheimer’s dementia stages what to expect (early, middle, late, and end of life).
It’s really hard to watch someone you know struggling to perform everyday tasks and your natural reaction may be to just take over. However, research shows that people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s can still acquire and process new information, helping them to learn or improve their performance on cognitive tasks, so it’s important to let them try the task themselves, as long as it’s safe for them to do so.
You can help slow the decline of their memory and cognitive abilities, and help them to remain as independent for as long as possible, by keeping them busy with games and activities that stimulate the mind and challenge their mental, functional, and physical abilities.
There are tons of activities and games that you, as a caregiver, can do with the person you’re taking care of. You can use items from around the house and your own creativity, or use specific materials like those used in the DementiAbility Method, to develop activities that the person in your care will enjoy and learn from.
DementiAbility method activities
DementiAbility activities are a series of games and activities specifically for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients that have been adapted from the Montessori Method. These activities create an environment that sets a person up for success, enabling them to be the best person they can be.
Originally designed for use in the classroom, when DementiAbility is applied to someone living with Alzheimer’s (which is just one of the forms of dementia), this method can mean increased independence, higher self-esteem, and a sense of fulfillment that they have a meaningful role in society.
One of the most popular activities you can use is called Mystery Bag, or Stereognostic Bag. What you need for this activity:
- 10 pairs of wooden shapes such as cubes, rectangular cubes, prisms, spheres, and eggs
- A cloth bag
Start by spending a few moments having the person look and feel each shape.
Have them observe the different forms each shape takes on when placed down on a different side. Once they’re familiar with the shapes, you can move on to activities that involve touch.
Place the cubes and rectangular cubes inside the bag, and ask the person to reach in and feel one shape. As they pull the shape out of the bag, they verbally say whether the shape is a cube or a rectangle.
You can also play a matching game with the person in your care by placing all of the wooden shapes in the bag, and have the person find matching pieces by feel. Repeat this process until all of the pieces have been paired.
Placing the objects in the bag eliminates distractions and stimulates the sense of touch, while the matching process helps to strengthen cognitive function.
If you want to learn more about the Montessori-based activities designed specifically for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, such as binomial cube, blue triangles, and number rods visit Keeping Busy, a website with products to have meaningful engagement with someone with dementia.
Art therapy activities
Various forms of art such as music, visual arts, drama, and writing, are a great way for caregivers of people living with Alzheimer’s to engage creativity, improve behavioural issues, and provide an outlet for self-expression.
Listening to music is one of the simplest and most cost effective ways to spend time with the person you’re taking care of. It requires almost zero effort on your part to turn on the radio or the music app on your phone, and play songs that the person in your care finds enjoyable and familiar.
Playlists of their favourite songs can help you set a certain mood – for example:
- Upbeat songs to get their energy going
- Slow, meditative songs for winding down at the end of the day
Encourage them to clap or dance, and if it helps to have a demonstration, clap and dance along as well!
Art projects such as painting, drawing, and sculpting can give someone with Alzheimer’s a sense of accomplishment and are a tactile form of self-expression.
If the person is in the middle to late stages of Alzheimer’s, you may need to help them get started by showing them how to perform each action. Remember to keep the project on an adult level, use non-toxic materials, and avoid sharp tools.
Make conversation as they create their masterpiece and provide encouragement, but give them plenty of time and space if they need it to finish their work.
Some of the best sensory activities to do with a person with Alzheimer’s aren’t the kinds that have rules or a points system. They’re the everyday activities you normally do around the house.
Everyday Activities – You can probably do these everyday activities quickly on your own, such as setting the table, dusting, and making the bed, but asking the person you’re taking care of to “help” you gives them a sense of purpose and pride.
Letting the person take on simple tasks around the house shows them that they’re a valued member of the family, one whose contributions are still very much needed and appreciated.
Hand Massage – Giving the person in your care a gentle hand massage is another sensory activity that he or she will likely find enjoyable. This activity can be relaxing for both you and the person you’re taking care of, and the physical and social aspects will be appreciated when verbal communication becomes more difficult in the later stages of the illness.
Tending a Garden – Gardening is another great way for the person in your care to get out of the house, enjoy the sunshine, and see the fruits of their labour grow right before their eyes. If possible, give them their own patch in the yard, or a few pots so they can garden indoors, where they can plant whatever seeds they like.
Going for Walks – If gardening is not something they’re interested in, perhaps a stroll through the neighbourhood or public park to admire flowers planted by others will be more enjoyable. This is a great sensory activity that allows them to get some light exercise into their daily routine.
Jigsaw puzzles, dominos, playing cards, dice, and word puzzles are simple games that can be easily adapted as Alzheimer’s recreational activities for the person in your care.
- Find a jigsaw puzzle with a picture of something they like, such as flowers, a mountain scene, or a favourite animal.
- Play a matching game with dominos or stand them up and knock them over.
- Use the playing cards in a sorting activity. For example, you can ask the person in your care to sort the cards according to colour, suits, or numbers.
- Rolling dice can be good for dexterity. Make up simple games like adding numbers or matching patterns, or just simply let them roll the dice however many times as they like.
- Word search puzzles should have large print, with no diagonal or backwards words so that it’s easy but challenging enough to hold their interest.
Activities that are cognitive and stimulate the mind are just as important as those that exercise the body.
Reading – Books and magazines on topics that interest them can be good to promote discussion. Try to find books that have large print and lots of colourful pictures, but are not childish. Audio books are a great alternative to printed books.
Life Story Book or Memory Box – You can work with the person you’re caring for to create a “life story book.” Gather pictures from family and friends and put them all together, along with notes about each one, into a photo album of memorable events in his or her life. A simpler version to create is a memory box, which is a special box where you place their favourite objects, pictures, and keepsakes. The person you’re caring for can look at these items whenever they want, hold each object, and recall or ask you why these items have a special significance. In times of agitation, taking out the memory box or life story book can have a calming effect on Alzheimer’s patients. This is also a nice way to incorporate a legacy building activity to enjoy for years to come.
Whatever activities you choose to engage in, remember that each activity should be meaningful, not just busywork, and should be appropriate to their manual dexterity and ability to process logic.
Activities and games should be judgment-free and simple to accomplish.
Find a balance between cognitive and tactile activities because when the mind and body are both stimulated, the person in your care may find them more interesting.
Provide written and verbal instructions, and don’t be afraid to demonstrate the game or activity if necessary. Keep the activity area clean, uncluttered, and well-lit.
Work with safe materials (such as wood and unbreakable plastic) with smooth edges and that are large enough to prevent them from being swallowed. If the person you’re taking care of shows interest in a new activity, incorporate it into the routine but don’t be afraid to try new things.
We want to hear your stories — let us know what activities the person you are caring for enjoys!