6 activities for dementia patients

See which activities help stimulate the mind and bring meaning to each day.

December 19, 2022

5 min read

Women playing the piano together

When it comes to dementia, boredom invites agitation, restlessness and increased confusion, especially in the evening. Engaging in hobbies, passions and interests promotes communication and uplifts the spirit.

You can create dementia-friendly activities that leverage your parent’s strengths, focusing on their abilities instead of deficiencies. This can provide a sense of structure and purpose to time, and also positively impact your parent’s cognitive, physical and emotional health.

1. Sing songs or play a musical instrument

Take a tip from healthcare professionals who prioritize music for dementia patients. Memories attached to music are the last to leave the brain and a powerful tool of expression when communication becomes difficult. Music decreases depression and anxiety, supports cognition, and improves overall well-being.

Musical participation groups are popular activities in memory care communities and have been clinically shown to boost memory in those with mild dementia. Was your parent a talented pianist? Join them at the keyboard.

Here are other musical instruments your parent may enjoy:

  • Drums or bongos
  • Tambourine
  • Harmonica
  • Ukulele
  • Mbira

Sing or play familiar songs and let your parent take the lead, or simply listen. Both will positively impact their well-being. Easily accessible headphones paired with a playlist of their favorite tunes invites joy and promotes independence.

2. Repair or build simple items

Was your parent handy around the house? Did they show interest in carpentry or woodworking? If so, they may find fulfillment with hands-on projects modified for their ability. Simple birdhouse kits, wooden model ships and similar projects may be ideal activities for dementia at the beginning and middle stages. If cognitive impairment is more advanced, consider tinker boxes or busy boards made with wood and metal. Avoid anything with childlike features.

“I used to work with a retired mechanical engineer,” says Catherine Schneider, Director of Resident Well-Being Curriculum at Atria Senior Living. “He was very smart, and very good with his hands. He loved to fix things. We purchased things from Goodwill and broke them, and he would fix them.”

3. Reminisce and share stories

If your parent loves to share stories from the past, encourage them to continue doing it! Open a photo album, look at keepsakes or prompt stories. While it may seem simple and passive, engaging long-term memory is actually therapeutic and helps your parent feel empowered, at peace and important. Maximize the effectiveness by following these guidelines for engagement:

  • Allow your parent to guide you
  • Ask open-ended questions when prompted
  • Allow time for silence
  • Share your own memories
  • If a sad memory occurs, give your parent space to feel the emotions that come with it
  • Listen to them; gently move on to a more positive memory when it feels appropriate within the conversation

Take your at-home reminiscence therapy beyond photo albums and keepsakes if you can. Consider books or other items centered around important past experiences. For example, if your parent worked on airplanes, show them a small replicate model and see what memories arise. If your parent was a doctor, keep an anatomy textbook on hand and flip through a few pages together.

4. Complete daily household tasks together

As menial as it may seem, cleaning and completing small household tasks are stimulating as well as rewarding activities for dementia. You may already have a schedule centered around care, meals and medication management – work in ability-appropriate tasks when possible and assist when necessary. There is power in routine when it comes to dementia. Use it to your advantage, and theirs.

Here are a few examples of familiar, dementia-friendly activities your parent can complete around the house:

  • Make their bed in the morning
  • Wash and dry dishes after meals.
  • Sort and polish silverware
  • Take the dog for a walk after dinner
  • Fold laundry or towels
  • Polish and shine shoes, and then put them away
  • Knead dough to make bread
  • Water house plants
  • Feed the cat in the morning

Those with dementia like to know what to anticipate next. Providing a flexible daily schedule with a variety of tasks provides structure and prevents idleness, which may exacerbate sundowners and sleepless nights. Completing these responsibilities may give your parent a sense of accomplishment and control over their environment.

5. Listen to favorite books and stories

Reading is a popular activity for seniors with dementia, and audiobooks are an excellent resource. Hearing the words of a favorite book or story engages the imagination and the mind. Audiobooks also help calm overstimulation. If your parent enjoys the sound of your voice, read to them instead. Either way, try not to exceed 15 to 20 minutes.

Look for opportunities to introduce sensory stimulation, which means using foods, aromatherapy and sounds to help your parent better engage with the story.

Researchers and healthcare professionals find sensory stimulation for dementia patients evokes positive emotions and memories, encourages relaxation, and improves mental well-being. Drinking warm cider and using autumn scents while listening to a story about fall or holding seashells while listening to a story set on the beach are examples of ways you can introduce sensory stimulation for your parent.

6. Create works of art through different materials

Creating art in any form is a meaningful activity for those with dementia. It is another method of sensory stimulation that allows for self-expression, which is important because dementia often impacts the brain’s ability to communicate.

Show your parent pictures of art to help their creativity flow. Take things slowly. You may have to assist them. Guide their hand as they paint a stroke of color. Work alongside your parent as they roll out clay. Help them cut pictures from a magazine to make a collage. String beads on a nylon cord for jewelry. Even if your parent never showed artistic skills before, you both may be impressed by what they create. More important, you may find your parent really enjoys the process.

We’re here when you need us

As dementia progresses, you will often find yourself managing the disease versus engaging with the person you know and love.

Finding meaningful moments to engage with your parent will help strengthen your relationship and help them live a healthier life – despite the cognitive impairment your parent is experiencing.

If you need more assistance navigating the challenges of dementia, we’re happy to share our expertise and senior care resources. Find a memory care community nearby and give us a call.

Our Guide on How to Engage a Parent with Dementia (PDF)

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Not sure where to start?

Whether you’ve provided care for a parent for years or are just starting to notice signs of cognitive decline in a spouse, caregiving comes with challenges every step of the way. Explore our five areas of the journey for tailored support along your path.

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