The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia is on the rise, yet the cost of dementia care options continues to grow. For many, family caregiving becomes the most practical and cost-effective solution, at least for a time. Keeping dementia patients actively engaged in everyday activities and cognitively challenging tasks is beneficial for both body and mind and, in some cases, it can even slow the progression of the disease. Staying active and engaged can help to reduce dementia sleep problems, as well.
We’ve put together a list of 50 tips and ideas for keeping dementia patients active and engaged through everyday activities, outings, cognitively challenging tasks, and social and emotional activities, many of which can be used throughout most of the stages of dementia. You’ll also find a few helpful tips for selecting activities that are appropriate based on the patient’s interests, abilities, and other considerations.
Tips for Choosing the Right Activities for Dementia Patients
- Relate activities to the patient’s work life or interests. “A former office worker might enjoy activities that involve organizing, like putting coins in a holder, helping to assemble a mailing or making a to-do list. A former farmer or gardener may take pleasure in working in the yard.” – Activities, Alzheimer’s Association; Twitter: @alzassociation
- Avoid over-stimulation. “Try not to overstimulate the person with dementia. Be selective with outings. Avoid crowds, constant movement and noise, which many people with dementia find overwhelming.” - Dementia - activities and exercise, BetterHealth Channel; Twitter: @BetterHealthGov
- Remember, activities include more than just “planned” activities. “It is also important to understand that activities are not just planned activities. Activities can include life skills which means participating in their daily living skills. They are encouraged to help hold the tooth brush or wash cloth, or to choose an item of clothing. This could also include meal time activities. They could be encouraged to fold the napkins, set the table, clear the table, or wash the dishes. Also, allowing them to help with watering the plants, dusting, or folding the laundry. These are all ‘activities’ and just as important as a game of bingo.” – Activity Ideas for Alzheimer’s/Dementia Residents, National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners (NCCDP); Twitter: @NCCDP
- Choose activities that hit the “sweet spot” – not too easy, and not too hard. “If an activity is too simplistic or childish (like coloring books for kids), the person might feel insulted or bored. If it requires remembering sequences or is otherwise above the person's cognitive level, it will frustrate and turn her off.” - Paula Spencer Scott, Activities for Alzheimer's and Dementia Patients, Caring.com; Twitter: @Caring
- Tap into memories of past events. “For many people with dementia, a sense of movement and rhythm is often retained. Listening to music, dancing, or contact with babies, children or animals provide positive feelings. People with dementia often have excellent memories of past events, and looking through old photos, memorabilia and books can help the person to recall earlier times.
“The opportunity to relive treasured moments can be deeply satisfying. If reading skills have deteriorated, make recordings for them. Locate picture books and magazines in the person’s areas of interest.” - Dementia - activities and exercise, BetterHealth Channel; Twitter: @BetterHealthGov
- Continue to go on outings as long as you and the patient are comfortable with them. “People in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease may still enjoy going out to places they enjoyed in the past. For example, the person might enjoy going to a favorite restaurant, park, shopping mall, swimming pool, museum, or theater. Keep going on these outings as long as you are comfortable with them.” - Adapting Activities for People with Alzheimer's Disease, National Institute on Aging; Twitter: @Alzheimers_NIH
- Focus on enjoyment, rather than achievement. “Find activities that build on remaining skills and talents. A professional artist might become frustrated over the declining quality of work, but an amateur might enjoy a new opportunity for self-expression.” - Four dimensions of planning activities for residents with dementia, Linked Senior; Twitter: @linkedsenior
- A tablet or smartphone can be a useful tool for social connection as well as access to puzzles, games, and other activities. “These digital devices can be very useful for people with dementia. From online games, puzzles and dedicated dementia apps, to Skype and You Tube, they provide a way to stay engaged with others and enjoy a range of activities.” - Activities for dementia, NHS.uk
- Keep in mind that it’s about engagement, not about the outcome or achievements. “Lose your pre-conceived notions of how the activity should be done or what the end product might be, as people in the middle and late stage of dementia are not capable of understanding the goal of an activity. Just enjoy the process and the current moment of doing!” - Monica Heltemes, Dementia: The Importance of Staying Active, Easy Living; Twitter: @EasyLivingFL
Exercise and Activities to Promote an Active Lifestyle
- For dementia patients with limited mobility, try chair exercises. “Chair exercisesare great for seniors whose mobility is limited. Find ways to encourage the person to move while sitting down. Seat your loved one in a comfortable chair and sit down facing the person. Play some stimulating music and start moving your arms, head, shoulders, legs, and feet. You might try tossing some props—pom-poms, scarves, or small balls—back and forth with your loved one. Be inventive! It’ll add to the fun.” - Activities for Seniors with Dementia: How to Create Quality Time, The Bristal; Twitter: @thebristal
- Dance to music from their generation. “Find a CD of music from your loved one's time. If they are able, encourage them to dance and shuffle around a bit with you. They will not only benefit from the activity, but from the music of their generation, too.” - Activities to Do With a Loved One Living With Dementia, Fall River Jewish Home; Twitter: @FallRiverJH
- Take a walk. “Go on a walk with your loved one through the park or courtyard. Take in the scenery and focus on how the sun or breeze feels. Try doing activities such as tai chi or yoga outdoors, as these activities calm the mind and allow for better sleep at night.” - The Health Benefits of Time Outdoors, The Jewish Association on Aging; Twitter: @AHAVAMemoryCare
- Slow marching is a good exercise for balance. “Slow marching is a simple but good exercise for the hips, knees and ankles and for better balance. Start slowly, marching to the front, to the side, one, two, three, four, and two the front. Two, three, four. Remember you may need to stay behind a chair to hold on for support if you prefer.” - Dementia: 10 minute exercises to improve your physical and mental health, VirtualMedicalCentre; Twitter: @VirtualMedical
- Try water exercise. “The buoyancy of water makes it a great low-impact setting for exercises for dementia, while also providing the natural resistance needed to make muscle gains. Local area senior centers, YMCAs and gyms may offer programs for seniors; inquire if caregivers can participate as well.” - Essential Exercises for the Loved One with Dementia, Caregiver Support
- Restorative yoga is ideal for improving balance and flexibility. “Restorative yoga is a lower intensity form of yoga focused on breathing, posture, and gentle movements. Yoga can improve balance and flexibility, which are both important for a group at higher risk for falls. Chair yoga is also a good alternative for people who have lost some mobility or have a lower body injury.” - Alexandra Black, 5 Types of Exercise for People with Dementia, Health.gov
Games, Puzzles, and Around the Home Activities for Dementia Patients
- Listen to music. “A universally soothing activity, listening to music from their past will help them remember the good times associated with the music. Not sure how music ties into memory? Just think – do you remember how you learned the alphabet?” - 15 Best Activities for Alzheimer’s Patients at Home, By Your Side Home Care; Twitter: @ByYourSideHmCre
- Sort and match up nuts and bolts, or tighten screws. “Was your loved one the fixer, the handyman, or the go-to guy? Maybe he’d like to sort through and match up nuts and bolts, or tighten screws into pieces of wood. Perhaps he’d like to connect smaller PVC pipes together. There are also activity boards with lots of ‘to do’ things attached that you can purchase.” - Esther Heerema, MSW, Creative Activities Ideas for People with Dementia, Verywell Health; Twitter: @Verywell
- Create a memory bag. “Fill the bag with items reminiscent of their late teens/early twenties. Scented products work well for this, as scents are strongly tied to memory. Try including soap, perfumes and aftershave, or holiday scents like gingerbread, pine and peppermint.” - Activities for Dementia Patients, A Place for Mom; Twitter: @APlaceforMom
- Help with clean-up around the home. “Instead of automatically tidying up the home, encourage dementia patients to assist with the clean-up. Doing so may increase their sense of purpose.” - 10 Activities for People Living with Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, Compassionate Care
- Prepare food. “Prepare a meal or bake something that your loved one will recognize. It’s often easier for one with dementia to recognize something from the past, so pick their favorite meal or dessert. If there is a food prep task they can do, you will have the added bonus of having them feel like they’ve contributed. And since you were likely going to be responsible for the meal anyway, consider this activity a two-for-one deal.” – Mike Ogburn, 10 Easy Activities to Do With Someone Living With Dementia, Kindred Healthcare; Twitter: @kindredhealth
- Put together a jigsaw puzzle. “Much like gentle exercise is good for the body, cognitive games like jigsaws are good for the brain, helping to keep it healthy and can even help slow down the brains decline as dementia progresses. Undertaking a few hours of these types of mentally challenging exercises a week can have an incredible benefit for people with dementia,stimulating and exercising both sides of the brain. The right side, which is responsible for creativity and intuitive thought, and the left side which is logic and order.
“Research has shown that when we are engaged in completing a jigsaw puzzle, the dopamine (feel-good chemical) increases in our brain, helping people to feel happy. There is also a great sense of accomplishment, achievement and pride experienced when one finally completes the puzzle.” – Ryan, What Are the Benefits of Dementia Puzzles and What Type of Puzzle Should I Choose?, Active Minds; Twitter: @ActiveMindsUK
- Color-by-numbers or memory card games. “There are plenty of other options besides jigsaw puzzles and crosswords. Consider color-by-number puzzles, memory card games, or make up your own games based on everyday tasks like sorting pantry items. Based on your loved one’s abilities, different activities will be more appropriate than others.” - Brain-Stimulating Benefits of Puzzles for Seniors with Dementia, Clarity Pointe
- Coin sorting. “Sorting coins into small glass or ceramic bowls is fun, soothing, and may even give your senior a sense of purpose if you ask them to help you sort your loose change.” – 6 Alzheimer’s Sensory Activities Reduce Anxiety without Medication, Daily Caring; Twitter: @DailyCaring
- Keep a table game box. “Recall the fun of playing Friday night poker or playing with a bridge club by using tokens from popular games. Add in a few poker chips and dominoes and have residents show you how to use them. Use a deck of cards for residents to deal to one another. Include a small pad of paper and pencil for them to demonstrate how to keep score.” – 12 Sensory Activities for Residents with Dementia, S&S Blog; Twitter: @SSWorldwide
Sensory Activities for Dementia Patients
- Provide sensory bean bags with different textures. “Provide small bean bags made of different fabric textures: cotton, velvet and silk, and filled with different grains.” - 15 Activities For Late-Stage Alzheimer's Disease, Golden Carers; Twitter: @GoldenCarers
- Incorporate art and music in the daily routine whenever possible. “Music and art therapy involve a creative process. Creativity resides in a part of the brain that is affected late in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Communication and learning are two functions that are usually lost early to Alzheimer’s. Art Therapyand Music Therapyallow those critical functions to be regained to a degree. Because the creative center of the brain works after others have been lost to the disease art including music can provide an alternative mode of communication, and even a new way to learn. Perhaps more important, music is fun! Art is fun! Include opportunities for creating art and music in the daily routine whenever you can.” – Susan Neville, Choosing Gifts for Alzheimer’s and Dementia, Silver Lexington; Twitter: @SilverLexSenior
- Try simple crafts. “Try making bead necklaces or decorating a bird feeder– producing items that give the person with dementia a sense of satisfaction and the chance to see it ‘in use’, gives the activity purpose.” – Kate Corr, Things to do: Activities for someone with dementia, Unforgettable; Twitter: @Unforget_org
- Knitting or painting can be relaxing. “It is very important to keep enjoying anything that gives meaning to one's life or provides a sense of pleasure or relaxation. Many people enjoy creative hobbies such as playing a musical instrument, knitting or painting. Others enjoy social contact, so it is important to keep this up as much as possible. A person with dementia may enjoy an outing even if they may not remember where they have been. What is important is that the moment is enjoyed.” - Activities for people with dementia, Dementia Australia; Twitter: @DementiaAus
- Make a DIY fidget box. “It’s easy to make your own fidget box or basket. Pull out the box when your older adult needs something to do and throw everything back into the box when they’re done.
“Get a container and fill it with some inexpensive odds and ends you can find in your house, make quickly, or buy at the dollar store. Gather things in a variety of colors and textures, like:
- Things with zippers or velcro closures
- Little toys that wind up
- Stress balls for squeezing
- Brightly colored plastic springs(like a Slinky)
- Mini stuffed animals
- A row of buttons sewn firmly onto a ribbon
- A piece of soft fleece or faux fur
- Old keys on a keyring”
- 6 Ways to Help Seniors with Alzheimer’s Keep Hands Busy, Daily Caring; Twitter: @DailyCaring
- Have some spa time and engage the senses with a hand and arm massage. “Dementia activities for a ‘spa’ time are calming and enjoyable. Begin with relaxing music and maybe string up some small twinkling lights. Or have a few flameless battery candles set around for ambiance. Aromatherapy is also wonderful, such as lavender (which helps calm and relax) or rose, lemon and vanilla.
“Give an arm and hand massage with scented lotion. A scalp massage is excellent as well. Also popular is a foot soak in warm, scented water, followed by a gentle foot massage. Perhaps a mini pedicure, complete with toenail polish for the ladies? The activities you include in your spa time will depend on the attention span of your participants.” - Meaningful Dementia Activities, Elder One Stop
- Bake cookies. “Most of us love the smell of cookies baking in the oven. The aromatherapy value can be especially meaningful for people with dementia. It can also be an opportunity to reminisce about baking or cooking favorite family treats.” - 10 Activities for Seniors with Dementia, Elmcroft
- Create a virtual beach. “This type of stimulation is concerned with awareness of texture and touch.
“A study by the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dementia states that tactile stimulation improves the well-being of Dementia patients.
- Create a virtual beach. Pour some sand in an empty box and ﬁll it with shells and stones and a collection of balls.
- Brain paths are used and stimulated every time we use our hands to hold something. It provides stimulation for 3000 nerve receptors in each of our ﬁnger tips, and then these nerves send impulses to stimulate the brain.
- Other things like sandpaper, plastic fruits, and pine cones can also be used in tactile stimulation.”
- 5 types of multi sensory stimulation for dementia patients, Samvedna; Twitter: @SamvednaSeniorC
- Painting or other arts and crafts. “Painting clay or plastic pots can be a fun activity for someone who has always enjoyed gardening. But don’t limit yourself to this activity—you can also engage people with middle stage dementia in planting flowers or herbs, painting landscapes, making pottery, sanding wood, drawing portraits—the possibilities are endless!” – Erin Harris, Activities for Dementia: How to Engage Seniors in Arts & Crafts, Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI); Twitter: @CPI_Training
Social and Emotional Activities for Dementia Patients
- Create a mystery bag. “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.” - Activities & Games for Dementia and Alzheimer’s Patients, Elizz (Saint Elizabeth Health Care); Twitter: @ElizzTweets
- Playing with dolls can help to fulfill needs for comfort and attachment. “While individuals may have different views on the use of dolls and children’s toys with people with dementia, it is now widely recognized that dolls can offer a very powerful therapeutic benefit if used at the right time and in the right way.
“Contact with a doll or a soft toy fulfills the human needs for comfort and attachment and provides a focus for the person to be able to nurture and protect something else. There are also many reported benefits of enhanced communication between a person with dementia and staff members through the introduction of a doll.” - Activity resources and approaches for dementia, Social Care Institute for Excellence; Twitter: @SCIE_socialcare
- Relax and reminisce about the past. “Caregivers often forget to spend relaxed time with loved ones who have dementia. Yet, if you can set aside the need for being correct, you can spend time in a relaxed way with the person, just talking or maybe sharing memories. Dementia persons have gaps in their memories, but in a relaxed setting, they are often able to remember many things of the past. They usually enjoy such sessions.” - Improve the quality of life of persons with dementia, Dementia Care Notes; Twitter: @dementiaDCN
- Spend time with pets. “Many people with Alzheimer's disease enjoy spending time with dogs, cats, birds and other animals. Living creatures can bring people out of their shell. They offer a chance to succeed—a cat who loves to be petted and an elder who enjoys the tactile sensation of fur and the sound of purring is a win-win. Pets offer unconditional love and reduce feelings of anxiety. Your loved one might help care for, feed, groom or walk a pet.” - Activities to Encourage Engagement in People With Dementia, Right at Home; Twitter: @rightathomeUS
- Singing can help to build connections with others. “A person with dementia often will remember the words of verses, songs and hymns when other parts of their memory are very damaged. Singing helps lift spirits, raise energy levels and feel connected with others! Many people with dementia do not always feel their voice is heard, so it provides an immediate sense of self-worth if they can sing and have others notice and respond.
“When you are working with a person with dementia, it might help to suggest or start singing a song. You will be surprised how often a person with dementia will come to life and join in with great enjoyment.
“One home care worker found that one of her clients with dementia hated having a wash, but when she incorporated singing a few favorite songs into the activity, her client was immediately more willing to go into the bathroom.” - Creative arts for people with dementia, Social Care Institute for Excellence; Twitter: @SCIE_socialcare
- Try improv. “Improv is a type of group comedy that involves making things up on the spot in a way that makes it easy for the other members of your group to do the same. While mostly known as a pastime of young comedians and performers, many seniors with dementiahave started to give it a try.
“Not only is improv a fun way to spend an hour or two and a good opportunity for socializing, but researchers have also found evidence that it improves the lives of the seniors that give it a go. Improv focuses on living in the moment and going with the flow, which takes the pressure off for people who spend most of their day confused about the lines between the past, present, and future.” – Kristen Hicks, 10 Activities for Seniors with Dementia, SeniorAdvisor.com; Twitter: @SeniorAdvisor_
- Scrapbooking is great for connecting with others and reminiscing. “Scrapbooking is a great activity for dementia patients since it allows them to reconnect with the special people in their lives. The activity doesn’t have to be grand or involve complex art materials. You don’t even have to spend a good chunk of money in securing decorative pieces for it.
“For example, you can create a scrapbook and have your patients assemble their families’ photos in them. You can ask them to sort the pictures according to subject, date or event. It can also help if you can make them write notes on the back of the pictures to help them reminisce.” - 7 Recreational Activities For Dementia Patients, NurseBuff; Twitter: @Nurse_Buff
- Visit a museum. “Going to a museum and looking at objects which the person can relate to and which are part of his or her past can be very enjoyable. Watch out for exhibitions which may be of special interest.” – Activities: A guide for carers of people with dementia, Alzheimer Scotland; Twitter: @alzscot
Outdoor Activities for Dementia Patients
- Visit a therapeutic garden. “These provide walking paths, bird feeders accessible to those in wheelchairs, and sturdy furniture for older adults. Gardens provide a safe environment to reconnect with nature, get a little exercise and absorb some vitamin D.” - Activities for People with Alzheimer's Disease, AARP; Twitter: @AARP
- Start a simple garden. “Gardening provides a little physical activity. It allows seniors with dementia to grow and eat their fruits and vegetables. Used raised beds, so seniors don’t have to bend over. The beds should be narrow to prevent too much reaching, the pathway should be broad and clear of any debris. Make sure there are some benches and chairs available to sit and relax.” - Outdoor Activities for Seniors with Dementia – 7 Fun Ideas, Applewood Our House; Twitter: @ApplewoodHome
- Simply enjoy some tea and take in the outdoor sights and sounds. “And for those who are less active – just watching and enjoying the activity of others and the daily changes of light, shade, sun and clouds, growth of plants, wildlife and so on is just as beneficial. Eating outside, reading a newspaper (the light is so much brighter outside for old eyes to see well), enjoying a cup of tea and chatting or being on one's own are all so very life-affirming – yet cost little or nothing. All that needs to be done is to create a safe, secure garden with seats to sit on and things to do – and an easy and visible way out to the garden and back in again.” - The importance of getting outside, Dementia Services Development Centre (DSDC); Twitter: @dementiacentre
- Visit a fruit farm. “If you live in an area with lots of local agriculture, you might be able to take advantage of pick-your-own fruit farms. Picking your own fruit — whether those fruits are apples, strawberries, raspberries, or another variety — offers the benefits of exercise, the outdoor, and stocking up on healthy foods.” - Outdoor Activities for Seniors & Caregivers, Visiting Angels; Twitter: @_VisitingAngels
- Visit the zoo. “For both children and adults alike, a fun-filled day at the zoo can be extremely rewarding and gratifying. Besides, who doesn’t like animals? Researchsuggests that having pets is very beneficial for the health and can lower blood pressure and boost levels of serotonin, the feel-good hormone. So, if you or your patient don’t own a pet, take a trip to a petting zoo or a family farm with the patient where she can touch and communicate with animals.
“They can also connect with these animals, feed them and simply spend a pleasurable and a soul-soothing time with them. This is also a great way to keep the patients involved and make them admire God’s beautiful creation.” - Kamil Riaz Kara, The caregiver’s guide 6 activities to keep a dementia patient busy, The Caregiver Space; Twitter: @theCGspace
- Go fly a kite (literally!). “Meaningful dementia activities bring back old memories. And can be a great reason to go outdoors, for both men and women. You can get basic kites at a discount store or even sometimes at a dollar store. Along with flying kites, making and decorating a simple one from a kit also makes a fun activity.
“Kids love to help with this one too! When you're ready to fly, be sure to limit the length of the kite string so it’s manageable. Go outside to an area where there are not too many trees, and take turns flying the kites. They can even be attached to wheelchairs.
“If this is an actual outing, bring along lemonade and cookies, or even a picnic lunch. Many of the participants may have fun stories to tell about flying kites when they were young. So kites and conversation are good for the memory too.” - Meaningful Dementia Activities, Elder One Stop
- Take them for a drive. “If your loved one used to love to travel take them for a drive, even if it is a short one. Just the act of getting out and seeing news things can be an enjoyable experience. Try taking a drive around the neighborhood. Let them decide which way to go and which memories that they are going to recall. Who knows, you may end up driving around the block several times, but so what? As long as they are enjoying the outing that is all that matters.” - Get Outdoors!, Azura Memory Care; Twitter: @AzuraMemoryCare
- Relax and enjoy some birdwatching. “While birdwatching can sometimes be seen as a less exciting activity, it can really be beneficial in calming the mind and allowing for reflection. This is a great activity for seniors who wish to enjoy and connect with nature. It’s very soothing and therapeutic.” – Eric Corum, Outdoor Activities for Seniors: 8 Ideas They Will Love, The Helper Bees; Twitter: @thehelperbees
- Go to a sporting event. “While the bustle of a professional sporting event may be overwhelming for seniors with dementia, attending a grandchild’s baseball game can be a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. There is the same action and excitement, but with less pressure and confusion.” - Enjoying the Outdoors: Spring Activities for Seniors with Dementia, ComfortCare Homes; Twitter: @ComfortCareICT