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

Activities to Cultivate a Sense of Purpose in People with Dementia

For people living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, the right activities are 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. But that 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

Research has shown that having a sense of purpose is therapeutic for people living with dementia. In what is now considered a landmark study, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago conducted a long-term study of over 1,400 senior citizens over a 15-year period. Those who rated high on their “purpose of life” scale had a 30% lower rate of cognitive decline over those who rated lower. Sense of purpose and meaning in life are also increased through role continuation, reminiscence, and the joy of teaching children. These relationships, established between children and individuals with dementia, can decrease anxiety and help preserve physical health.

 

Moving past feelings of helplessness

Though dementia can, in fact, limit certain abilities, it’s important to avoid something called learned helplessness. This happens when expectations about the capabilities of an afflicted individual become so low that they lead to an actual decline in their true abilities. For example, if you do everything for your loved one, they’ll eventually forget how or be unwilling to do these things themselves. This growing feeling of helplessness is directly at odds with the sense of purpose you’re trying to instill. 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. These can be simple chores like folding laundry or sorting through a drawer to help organize the items inside. Even simple tasks like these can help people with dementia feel useful.

Finding purpose might be as simple as drawing upon what your loved one has always enjoyed. Did they love animals? Sometimes people enjoy cutting out magazine photos and making a collage or simply pinning them to a bulletin board. 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.

A step up from this type of dementia activity involves looking back over the person’s life and helping them develop their biography or timeline of events in a scrapbook. This can be very enjoyable for you and your loved one. People with dementia are often able to remember events from decades ago more easily than what happened last week. This dementia activity provides a range of tasks to do, such as looking through old photos and finding other mementos like ticket stubs or theater programs that are appropriate for a scrapbook. And as the scrapbook develops, the pleasure and satisfaction from sharing it is quite rewarding.

Golden Carers https://www.goldencarers.com/ is a website that features articles, activities and resources for caregivers working with Alzheimer’s patients.

 

20 Activities Recommended for People With Alzheimer's and Other Forms of Dementia

Here’s a quick summary of 20 activities they 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.

 

2. Deck of cards

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

 

3. Music

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

 

4. 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.

 

5. Untying Knots

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

 

6. Threading Yarn or String

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

 

7. Doll Therapy

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

 

8. 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.

 

9. 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.

 

10. Beach ball

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

 

11. Fish tank

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

 

12. Matching shapes

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

 

13. Pairing and sorting

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

 

14. Pom-Poms

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

 

15. 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.

 

16. Picture Puzzle

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

 

17. 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 home-maker may enjoy arranging pots and pans on a shelf etc.

 

18. 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.

 

19. 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.

 

20. Cupcake decorations

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

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 

 

Some of the best activities for seniors with dementia 

These include activities that yield a tangible outcome and purpose, like making things together — a cushion cover, a birdhouse, 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 to promote mental agility and physical exercise such as dancing are powerful tools to provide enjoyable, meaningful experiences. Please call us at 813-280-5009 to learn more.