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Memory Care Activities that Cultivate a Sense of Purpose in People with Dementia

A senior woman sits on a couch and leans forward on her walking cane

For people living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, engaging in the right activities is crucial. Finding activities for seniors with dementia can offer benefits such as cognitive stimulation, the opportunity to connect with others, comfort and relaxation, and more. But perhaps the main obstacles to pursuing effective dementia activities are the helplessness, lack of identity and boredom that typically accompany a dementia diagnosis. The condition is progressive, and many people with dementia simply give up doing what they used to enjoy, losing their sense of purpose. This only leads to sadness, depression and loneliness. Finding meaningful activities for your loved one with dementia is key to coping with this challenging disease and is worthwhile for both of you.


The Importance of Purpose

A landmark long-term study by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago of over 1,400 senior citizens found:

  • Those who rated high on their “purpose of life” scale had a 30% lower rate of cognitive decline than those who rated lower.
  • A sense of purpose and meaning in life are also increased through role continuation, reminiscence and the joy of teaching children.
  • Relationships established between children and individuals with dementia can decrease anxiety and help preserve physical health.


Moving Past Feelings of Helplessness

Though dementia can limit certain abilities, it’s important to avoid something called learned helplessness which happens when:

  • Expectations about the capabilities of an afflicted individual become so low that they lead to an actual decline in their true abilities.
  • If you do everything for your loved one, they’ll eventually forget how or be unwilling to do these things themselves.
  • The key is finding the balance between offering help when it’s needed while encouraging independence and self-sufficiency whenever possible.


Finding Dementia Activities with a Beneficial Outcome

Many people with dementia struggle with feelings that they’ve become a burden to the person caring for them. They want to help but don’t know what to do. Even a simple chore they can manage easily will give them something to do and provide the beginnings of a new sense of purpose. It may take some thought and experimentation to create activities that are neither too difficult nor so simple that they may offend your loved one. Suggestions include:

  • Fold laundry.
  • Sort through a drawer to help organize the items inside.
  • Cut out magazine photos and make a collage, or simply pin them to a bulletin board.
  • Review your loved one’s life and help them develop their biography or timeline of events.
  • Create a scrapbook of old photos and find other mementos like ticket stubs or theater programs.

If you’re caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s, you can find 1000s of activity ideas, resources and articles at Golden Carers.


21 Activities Recommended for People with Alzheimer’s and Other Forms of Dementia

Here’s a quick summary of 20 activities Golden Carers recommend for people living with Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Fiddle box

Collect items according to your loved one’s previous profession or occupation. Present the items in a box for a feel, touch and explore activity.

  1. Deck of cards

Have your loved one separate a deck of cards into individual suits: spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs.

  1. Music

Play folk or popular music from your loved one’s era – this never fails to please.

  1. Rubber tipped darts game

This can be played by one or two people, each having three darts to throw. It does not injure players or damage walls.

  1. Untying knots

Buy a medium rope and tie a few simple knots. Ask your loved one to help you untie the knots.

  1. Threading yarn or string

Buy large pasta loops for your loved one to string together with yarn.

  1. Doll therapy

This is especially good for female dementia patients. The dolls should look like newborn babies. Add accessories like a bassinet, baby bath and baby clothes.

  1. Display of insects

A display of worms or ants in a large glass container (placed in a secure place) is a good subject for conversation.

  1. Fabric box

Place pieces of assorted fabric inside a large cardboard box — silk, lace, felt, velvet, acrylic and wool. Have your loved one feel and fold the fabric.

  1. Beach ball

With you both seated in chairs, roll or kick a beachball to one another.

  1. Fish tank

This provides visual stimulation and is a good topic for conversation.

  1. Matching shapes

Matching shapes or pictures is a fun game combining sensory stimulation and thinking skills.

  1. Pairing and sorting

Like the deck of cards game, let your loved one match pictures, shapes and other objects together.

  1. Pom-poms

Have your loved one place colored pom-poms in containers of the same color.

  1. Golf balls

Another inexpensive ‘sorting by color’ activity lets loved ones use an ice-cream scoop to sort colored golf balls into containers of the same color.

  1. Picture puzzle

Enlarge a photo of a car, fruit, landscape or close relative of your loved one. Laminate it and cut it into four odd pieces to be put together.

  1. Activities relating to the individual’s former life.

A carpenter may enjoy sanding a small piece of wood, a post office worker may enjoy stamping envelopes, a homemaker may enjoy arranging pots and pans on a shelf, etc.

  1. Reminiscing

People living with dementia can retain long-term memories even as the illness progresses. Themes for reminiscing can include school days, best recipes, the four seasons, your best birthday, etc.

  1. Cutting pictures from old calendars

Use safety scissors to cut pictures from calendars; collect enough pictures to make a poster to maintain dexterity and provide a sense of accomplishment.

  1. Cupcake decorations

Buy a few dozen cupcakes. Make icing in two colors and put it into a piping bag. Demonstrate how to ice a cupcake and then ask your loved one to try it.

  1. Daily activities

Just being involved in the routines and activities of daily life can provide meaning. They help give your loved one a sense of self-worth and add to their quality of life. Here are some to consider:

  • Making the bed
  • Putting clothes away
  • Buttoning a shirt
  • Putting on makeup
  • Setting the table
  • Sorting a tray of silverware
  • Watering plants
  • Organizing and cleaning purses and wallets
  • Sorting jewelry boxes
  • Cleaning out a drawer
  • Making potpourri
  • Pressing flowers into a book


Creating Activities for a Loved One with Dementia

If you’re looking to come up with things to do that connect specifically with your family member, consider ones that have a tangible outcome and purpose, like making something together — a cushion cover, a birdhouse or threading beads for a necklace. The sense of engagement and satisfaction can be very high with this type of dementia activity. Here are some additional guidelines for finding the right activities for seniors with dementia:

Focus on activities that promote relaxation. Dementia can be a source of great anxiety and tension. Some people with dementia will not be able to take part in certain physical activities, but this doesn’t mean they’ve lost their capacity for enjoyment. Relaxation through music, sunlight, warmth, smell and touch is always beneficial.

Sometimes the activity is more important than the outcome. Worry less about how an activity should be done or what the end product is supposed to be than how engaged your loved one is. People in the middle and late stages of dementia aren’t always capable of understanding the goal of an activity. Try to help them enjoy the process by being in the moment.

Know your loved one’s daily rhythms. People move through the disease in their own way at their own pace. Be alert to signs that an activity may be causing frustration. Make some modifications or try something else if necessary. Is there a better time of day to try this particular activity? Are noise and distractions causing sensory overload?

The goal is engagement. Whether playing a game or performing exercises together, the important thing is that the person with dementia stays connected and engaged in the activity. Sensory stimulation in this way helps preserve basic skills — such as being able to button a shirt — and lets them function as independently as possible for as long as possible.

Arrange for a visit with children or a pet. Visiting with children or a dog or cat can often touch people with dementia deeply.

Embrace artistic pursuits like painting, writing or music. Visual arts, assembling a collage or creating a clay ornament, writing, and music are great ways to encourage creativity, improve behavioral issues, and provide an outlet for self-expression. The arts can help create a mood, stimulate the imagination and offer genuine enjoyment.


Let Freedom Plaza Help.

Though dementia is a progressive condition, your loved one will likely have both good and bad days. Some will be filled with energy for lots of activity, and at other times they may struggle to understand certain activities and prefer to do something less taxing. Be flexible and take each day as it comes.

The memory care team at Freedom Plaza can introduce activities to help your loved one with dementia stay fit, connected and inspired. Programs such as discussion groups and exercise classes are powerful tools to provide enjoyable, meaningful experiences. To learn more, call us at 813-280-5009, contact us here or use our Community Assistant chat feature.