The Bristal Assisted Living Blog

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Activities for Seniors with Dementia: How to Create Quality Time


Coming up with meaningful activities for seniors with dementia takes thought, care, and understanding. Your loved one may have difficulty following directions or joining a conversation. Outings and social gatherings might overwhelm or confuse them. Behavior can prove unpredictable.

Still, finding ways to occupy and engage your loved one is essential to maintaining quality of life. By focusing on what the person can do, rather than what they cannot do, and choosing activities appropriate to the person’s current stage, you can improve your chances of success.

Follow the Stage of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia typically progress gradually through three general stages: mild (early-stage), moderate (middle-stage), and severe (late-stage). Each person will experience symptoms differently, but as the disease progresses, the ability to speak, think, move, and handle daily living activities begins to decline. In the late stages of dementia, the person becomes unable to speak or care for him or herself; but even in this stage, there are ways to help maintain the person’s quality of life.

Remember that simple tasks can serve as enjoyable activities for seniors with dementia. And passive activities, such as watching birds at a feeder on the lawn, can be just as valuable as active ones.

Early- or Middle-Stage Disease

1. Exercise

As much as possible, include some form of physical movement in your loved one’s daily schedule. Studies show that exercise may help preserve cognitive functioning, improve sleep, and reduce problematic behaviors that sometimes occur with people with memory loss. Exercising at predictable times each day may also help reinforce a sense of routine, which can be reassuring and calming for people with dementia.

• Walking is a great form of exercise. Take a short walk around the neighborhood in the morning or evening, or a stroll through the hallway, if your loved one lives in a residential community. A spin in a wheelchair can also serve as exercise, especially if the person is able to propel himself or herself.

• Chair exercises are 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.

2. Music

Many people with Alzheimer’s or dementia respond well to music, especially music they may remember from earlier in life. Some people can recall and even sing lyrics of favorite songs long after their ability to speak has dwindled.

• Listening to favorite tunes is a great way to start the day. Turn off the TV and provide a DVD or MP3 player with music your loved one enjoys. Experiment with different types of music—Big Band tunes, jazz, old standards, hymns, or relaxation music. Notice how your loved one responds.

Musical games can also provide some fun. If the person is able, encourage them to sing along. Or play a piece of music, and invite the person to “name that tune.” Experiment and see what leads to success; if games are frustrating, try another approach or just listen together.

Music and art-oriented activities are uniquely effective because engaging in them can trigger emotional recall and also tap into the loved one's inner yearning for expression.

3. Household Chores

In addition to music and exercise, you can turn everyday chores into enjoyable activities for seniors with dementia who are in the early or middle stages. These can engage your loved one and may even spark memories and conversation.

Choose activities that the person can handle easily, such as:

• Preparing a cake mix

• Mashing potatoes

• Assembling simple recipes (like a fruit salad or pigs in a blanket)

• Wiping or setting the table

• Prepping fruits and vegetables: shucking corn, peeling a banana or snapping beans

• Unloading groceries (keep an easy-to-reach space in the cabinet or pantry for the person’s use)

• Folding laundry

• Watering plants

• Dusting the furniture

Remember to focus on what your loved one can do. Praise the activity and don’t worry about the results. You may have to redo some of these tasks later; that’s okay.

4. Books and Games

Share a picture book with your loved one. Collect photos from magazines and assemble them together into a collage on a favorite topic: the beach, a favorite sport, seasons of the year. Tell their life story with a memory book. Consider purchased games, such as Bingo, or simple word games.

5. Socializing

Outings are important activities for seniors with dementia, but can cause agitation or confusion, along with making wandering behavior harder to control. As the disease progresses, social gatherings or parties may eventually be out of the question. However, if your loved one is able, try to involve them in family gatherings and other events if possible. Plan ahead to reduce the stress. Have the person dress comfortably and use the restroom before leaving for the event. Keep the visit as short as possible. Move to a quiet area if the scene seems to overwhelm or frighten the person. In the past decade, "Alzheimer's Cafés" (also known as "Memory Cafés") - safe, comfortable venues in which seniors with dementia may meet and socialize with family and caregivers - have proven effective in terms of facilitating social interaction and inclusion.

Middle-Stage Disease

When your loved one reaches the middle stage of disease, you may continue to do many of the activities described, but gradually simplify them. Choose easier cooking projects, for example, and have all of the ingredients ready before you start.

Other activities you might try:

• Sorting projects are great activities for seniors with dementia. Choose items that cannot be easily swallowed. Your loved one might enjoy sorting a set of dominoes by color, or sorting socks, buttons, cards, wooden spools, or spoons by size or color.

• Rolling yarn: Provide yarn and start rolling it into a ball, then place it near your loved one’s hands.

• Storage boxes: Provide your loved one with a box filled with items, such as large pieces of jewelry or tools. Empty the box and encourage the person to put the items back inside.

Late-Stage Disease

At this stage, people have lost the ability to communicate, walk or eat independently. But they still have the five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Find ways to stimulate these senses. Your loved one might enjoy watching a bird feeder at the window, listening to music, touching and holding a doll or stuffed animal, tasting an ice pop, or smelling a scented hand lotion.

Be sure to talk to, touch and hug your loved one. Hold the person’s hand. Rub lotion on the person’s hands or read aloud to him or her. You may feel as if you’re conducting a one-sided conversation, but know that just your presence may be calming and reassuring.

Remember …

Whatever activities you choose for your senior, the goal is not to finish the activity or to accomplish specific results. The goal is to create moments of joy.

At every stage of disease, you can help a person with dementia by finding activities that are doable and enjoyable. With your care, love and attention, your loved one will enjoy a richer and more meaningful life.


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