Alzheimer's / Dementia

3/10/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

When dementia begins to affect a person’s abilities to participate in some activities, the loss of busyness can affect their mental health. Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones has learned firsthand five helpful ways to keep a loved one with dementia engaged.

My father has vascular dementia. He can no longer care for his two-acre yard, do house repairs, go on ocean fishing trips, or even put his shoes on without help. Most of the time my dad seems fairly content with his new more sedentary (and less responsible) lifestyle; however, there are days when I think it hits him just how small his world has become. It’s on those days that he declares that he is “worthless” and doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.

Considering the significant limitations experienced by those with dementia, it’s no wonder that there is such a high rate of depression among these seniors. Approximately 30 percent of those with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease experience feelings of hopelessness, irritability and anxiety as well as disturbances in sleep, appetite, and energy levels.

But while life for someone with dementia definitely changes, it can still be worthwhile. The key is to focus on what your loved one can do, rather than what they can’t.

Five ways to keep your loved one with dementia engaged

1. Make modifications

My father loves wildlife. He created a bird sanctuary of sorts directly outside his and my stepmom’s kitchen window, and the two of them, along with their kitties, love to sit by the window and watch the various species of birds (and the occasional fat squirrel) dine at their feeders.

Because my father is a little wobbly from a stroke, my stepmother had taken over the job of refilling the feeders, a job that my dad really enjoyed. However, by modifying the task, my dad can still be part of the process. My stepmother brings the feeders into the garage, where my dad is able to scoop the seed into the boxes before she rehangs them.

Small modifications like this can allow your loved one to feel a part of the daily workings of the household again. If they enjoyed cooking, you do the chopping and let them toss the salad, or they assemble the casserole and you handle the oven duty. Vacuuming, dusting, setting the table, watering plants, or folding clothes are all chores that many people with dementia can manage while also lightening the load for the family caregiver.

2. Mirror their vocation

Finding activities in which your loved one can participate will make them feel useful and valued. This can include tasks that recall your loved one’s career experiences. If they were a banker, ask them to help you roll that huge jar of coins or separate them into piles for you. Checking the oil in your cars every week might give an ex-mechanic a sense of purpose. A former art teacher may enjoy getting photos into albums for you or even creating scrapbooks with decorative embellishments. You can also look for tasks that are similar to their avocations, like encouraging a gardener to plant a few pots with flowers and herbs or a poker player to play simpler card games.

Related: Basics of caregiving for a loved one with dementia

3. Ask for advice

When I was young (and poor), I used to call my father on at least a weekly basis to help troubleshoot an erratic sump pump, remind me what size drill bit to use for curtain rods, or help identify a worrisome noise in my car’s engine. Although I can afford to call a professional now, my husband suggested that I start asking my dad for advice and a helping hand now and again.

Recently, I ordered a table that had to be assembled, and the box just happened to arrive when my father and my stepmother were visiting. I unpacked the pieces and the instructions and asked him if he could assemble it for me. It took a little time and effort, but he did it! The end result: I had a piece of furniture that I didn’t have to fuss with, and he had a feeling of accomplishment that – with repetition – will help bolster his flagging confidence.

4. Get them moving

Senior man and adult son walking on a garden path. Image by Lisa F. Young. Dementia affects a person's ability to participate in activities. We share five ways to keep a loved one with dementia engaged and active.

A regular exercise regimen at a gym or senior center gives a person with dementia the opportunity to interact with others, which is critical in keeping them engaged. Not only that … stretching, cardio, and working with light free weights also helps them stay strong enough to participate in activities. While my father frequently complains that he’s too weak or tired to go to the gym when it’s time to go, my stepmother says that he always enjoys their biweekly exercise program.

5. Stimulate their senses

Another consequence of participating in fewer everyday activities is sensory deprivation. Creating activities and areas specifically designed to turn on your loved one’s sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste can help improve their focus and communication as well as reduce anxiety and depression.

Multisensory spaces can be as complex as a room designed by Miami Jewish Health. The room includes lava lamps, fiber optic lights, scent diffusers, objects that inspire touching and exploration, and gentle sounds and music. Or these multisensory areas can be as simple as a corner of your yard where you’ve planted a colorful garden, complete with a bird feeder and a comfy bench for your loved one to soak up the sensory experience. You can even plant some herbs for them to taste!

The ideas that you choose to keep your loved one with dementia engaged will of course depend on their interests and physical capabilities but also the progression of their disease. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t score a home run with the first activity you try. Just keep swinging and hopefully you’ll find a way to keep your loved one engaged, to bring them pleasure, calm them, and make them feel part of life again!

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones