Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia cause a gradual loss of memories and thinking skills. As the disease progresses, it becomes increasingly harder to do even simple activities like sewing or reading a book.
But that doesn’t mean people with dementia have to give up everything they love doing. In fact, staying physically and mentally active helps preserve brain function and protect against mental decline. There are ways to find and adapt activities to your loved one as their abilities change.
Here are a few ideas for activities you can do together.
Take a Walk
Walking is one of the simplest things you can do. Plus it has the double benefits of exercise and social interaction.
You might try to walk together for 30 minutes, five times a week. If that's too much, even a 5- or 10-minute walk is worthwhile. If your loved one is in the later stages of the disease, stay close by them to keep them from wandering off or falling.
Practice Tai Chi
Tai chi started as a martial art in China, but it's since been adapted into an exercise program. The practice combines slow and gentle movements with breathing. Research finds tai chi helpful for improving short-term memory and other mental functions in people with early-stage dementia. It also can help to prevent falls.
Your community might offer tai chi classes for seniors. If not, you can learn the moves online by following along with free videos from the Tai Chi Foundation.
Look Through a Photo Album
Going through photos of family and friends is a way to reconnect with the past and share beloved memories. Arrange the book in chronological order from past to present. Talk about each photo and use them to highlight important times in the person's life, such as their first dance, their wedding, or the birth of their child.
Watch a Movie or TV Show
Choose one of your loved one's favorites. Something with a simple plot and musical numbers are easier to follow.
Spend Time in the Garden
Simply being outdoors in nature is therapeutic. Gardening helps to calm aggressive behavior, improve sleep, and enhance overall well-being in people with dementia. It's also an easy way to get in more exercise.
While you're outside, suggest a game of catch. It's not just for children. The repetition of throwing and catching a ball is calming, plus it's good for coordination. Use a ball that is soft, beanbag, or stuffed animal to prevent injuries if your loved one gets hit accidentally.
Pet a Dog or Cat
Animals help their human companions in so many ways, which is why you'll often see them working as therapy pets. They offer unconditional love, companionship, and exercise opportunities. The simple act of petting an animal helps with dementia symptoms like anxiety and agitation. Feeding and caring for a pet also gives people a sense of purpose.
If you don't have the bandwidth to take care of a pet plus your loved one with Alzheimer's, there are other opportunities to interact with dogs and cats. You might spend a couple of hours at your local animal shelter, or ask a friend who has pets if you can visit. Just make sure that any animal your loved one interacts with is calm, friendly, and not inclined to bite.
Listen to Music
The parts of the brain that help us recognize music are often the last ones that dementia damages. Though it's not clear whether listening to songs might improve memory, it does seem to have a calming effect on people with Alzheimer's.
Choose music that is special to your loved one, such as songs they listened to when they were young. Sing along and encourage them to join you. You might add an instrument into the musical mix if they used to play.
Go for a Swim
Swimming is one of the best types of physical activity for older adults. The water is soothing and buoyant, making it more comfortable on arthritic joints. Plus the resistance of the water makes for a good aerobic and strength training activity.
When you take your loved one swimming, stay in the shallow end of the pool and make sure you or someone else is there to supervise. Even if the person has been swimming for many years, memory loss could make it too dangerous for them to be left alone.
Do a Brain Game
Crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, and other mentally stimulating games are like mini workouts for the brain. You can do them the old-fashioned way -- on paper -- or online. Playing these games with your loved one is a win-win for everyone involved. Research shows that a mentally active lifestyle might delay the start of Alzheimer's by as much as 5 years.
Choose healthy recipes that are easy to make. Assign food prep and cooking tasks you know the person can safely handle. In the early stages of dementia, they may be able to choose recipes and help with the grocery shopping. Later on you might ask them to do more simple tasks like pouring or stirring the ingredients.
Keep a watchful eye on dangers like a lit stove and sharp knives. Wipe up any spills right away to avoid falls. And be mindful of any swallowing problems that may require smaller pieces or softer foods.
Visit a Memory Café
A memory café is a place for people with dementia and their caregivers to socialize, play games, and listen to music. It's not the same as a respite program where caregivers drop off their loved ones. You stay with them, but you may find support and get ideas from talking to the other caregivers you meet there.
Call Family Members or Old Friends
Connections are important, especially for people who live far away from family and friends. Schedule a video call. Choose a time of day when your loved one is most alert. Use the time together to reminisce about the good times you've all shared.
You might also schedule an in-person visit, although it will take some added planning. Before you go, let everyone who will be there know what to expect. Tell family members about the person's challenges, and how to respond when memory lapses happen.
No matter which activity you choose, try to be patient. It may take your loved one time to get the hang of it. Take it slow. Adapt each activity to their new abilities.
If they become frustrated or agitated, or they just aren't interested in what you're doing, switch to something else. What matters most is not what activity you do, but that you're spending quality time together.