Activity Tips When Caring for Someone with Dementia
Every few weeks my dad goes for chemo, and while his side effects are minimal and he is capable of going alone, I usually tag along. My mother always goes, and while I don't think she understands the scope and severity of his illness because of her own dementia, it's important to both her and my dad that she is there too. We are typically at dad's chemo appointments for two or three hours. My job is to keep my mom company, and keep her somewhat entertained. That can be a tall order not only in the doctor's office but also at home, especially since mom has lost interest in a lot of her past activities due to the effects of her dementia. So how do we find a balance between things that she will like, and things that we are capable of working into her and dad's daily routine? We start by focusing on what she is interested in, and what she is capable of becoming involved in, instead of focusing on her limitations. The following are some suggestions for helping your loved one have a day filled with enriching activities.
- Gear daily activities to your loved one's past interests and current ability level. Because there are many different levels of abilities for an individual, activities must be tailored to individual needs and interest. Abilities also fluctuate from day to day, so an activity that works one day may be too difficult the next. If your mother has dementia and loved to cook, chances are that she will still enjoy activities that revolve around cooking, but she may not be able to participate as actively as she once did. Instead of chopping vegetables or following the many steps of a recipe, she can still be involved by stirring ingredients together, or pouring batter into a cake pan. Some days she may simply be content to listen to conversation and watch while you prepare a meal. Use this opportunity to reminisce about her years growing up, and times that she spent in the kitchen.
- Structure the day and recognize milestones. Routines are reassuring for those with Alzheimer's or dementia so keep each day basically the same to provide stability and reduce confusion. Incorporate daily milestone events such as morning grooming and bathing routines, mealtimes, social visits and bedtime to help your loved one feel secure. Encourage your loved one to participate as much as her individual abilities allow. She may be able to choose between two outfits when getting dressed, she may be able to help set the table at mealtimes, and may be able to help with simple housework. Remember, she may not do the job perfectly and that's okay. What is important is that she has a sense of accomplishment from helping.
- Incorporate the outdoors as much as possible. Most of us have spent quite a bit of time outside during our lives, whether we have enjoyed gardening, riding bikes or taking long walks. While bike riding is probably not a good activity to try now, your loved one will still enjoy the benefits of being in the great outdoors. Instead of gardening on his hands and knees, plant flowers with your father in containers or in a raised garden. Instead of long walks, enjoy a short walk to the end of the block with your loved one. Take in the sights of the countryside during an afternoon car ride, topped off by a visit to the ice cream shoppe. Reminisce during these times with your loved one, you may just hear some great stories that are new!
- Choose a positive approach. Your approach when interacting with your loved one can either create anxiety, frustration and anger, or it can inspire hope and joy and create meaning and purpose for her. Concentrate on the process and not the end result of sharing an activity with your loved one. Her gardening skills and folding abilities with laundry may not be perfect, but the fact that she was able to participate at her own level will create a sense of accomplishment with your loved one. Be flexible and realize that an activity that you have planned may not work out. Have a backup plan ready and go with it, taking cues from your loved one for interest and ability level. Break activities up into simple steps and help with more difficult parts to prevent your loved one from becoming overwhelmed and to help maintain her self esteem. Don't criticize or correct your loved one during activities, self expression can be very liberating for both of you!
Keeping your loved one's mind and body active is an important part of caring for her as she lives with Alzheimer's. Remember that each day may be different and even the best laid plans may need to be changed. Also, always consider your loved one's safety when planning her day, and realize that as time passes, safety needs may increase. Watch for wandering behaviors, inappropriate or unsupervised cooking, and household risks such as stairs, throw rugs, extension cords, bathroom hazards and sliding glass doors. One of the things that my mother enjoys the most is looking through old photos and reminiscing. This is an enjoyable and productive way for us to spend time together. Tailor your loved one's activities to his past activities and interests and you too, will be sharing companionship and a great relationship during this important part of your loved one's life.
Remember, every day, families just like yours and mine are facing a health care crisis with a loved one. The support and education you need to navigate the aging journey is available at your finger tips from expert care professionals at Lutheran Homes of Michigan.
"Dementia and Alzheimer's Care: Tips, Activities and Long Term Care Options." http://www.helpguide.org/elder/alzheimers_disease_dementias_caring_caregivers.htm
"Alzheimer's and Dementia Resource." http://www.activitytherapy.com/alzh.htm