11 Simple Activity Ideas for Memory Care Residents

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

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In many cases, families are no longer able to manage someone at home due to unsafe behaviors like wandering or leaving the stove on. Or a loved one requires too much hands-on care for families to manage. As a result, they may work with their loved one to help them reside at a memory care facility that specializes in caring for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

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Memory care communities usually have a higher staff to resident ratio and are smaller due to the intensive nature of caring for people with dementia. Most communities will have residents at varying stages of dementia, making activity planning a challenge. Some larger communities will have specific areas designated for the different stages of dementia decline allowing for more tailored activities.

No one really knows what the experience is like for someone who has dementia. Loss of memory and reasoning has to be very frightening and confusing. Agitation and anxiety are common. Activities for people with dementia are a critical part of helping restore normalcy and keeping people occupied. They help people feel less agitated and lonely. The activities we will highlight can be used by family members since not all communities will have adequate staffing to meet all residents’ individual needs.

Sensory Activity Ideas for Memory Care Facility Residents

Unfortunately, the retirement hobbies that a person had before dementia may or may not be relevant when it comes to activity ideas. Trying things out is the best way to see what works. Sensory activities are important for people with dementia because they connect to an emotional place that may otherwise be difficult to access. Depending on the severity of dementia, some people cannot communicate their needs, wants, or fears. Sensory activities can reveal what gives someone pleasure.

The senses of taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch can be a way to connect with people who have dementia. Additionally, it keeps them calm, elevates mood, and decreases anxiety. Many sensory suggestions are the same ones used in craft or social activities since there is some crossover. The key to successful sensory tasks is having information about the person before starting so you can tailor the activity to what the person enjoyed in the past.  

1. Music

Music has probably been studied more than any other intervention for people with dementia. A study from Frontiers in Medicine found the following: 

  • Music therapy improves cognitive function in people with dementia.
  • Listening to music followed by singing had the most significant effect on patients with dementia.
  • Music therapy improves the quality of life of people with dementia.
  • Music decreases depressive symptoms in people with dementia. 

Music can reach even people with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, but music therapy has to be used carefully and with individual intent in every case. People who use music successfully with dementia patients recommend that you find out what the person likes. This may seem obvious, but knowing the kind of music a person prefers is critical to the activity’s success. Family members usually know whether their loved one likes opera, big band, show tunes, or other preferences.

Also, music therapy also works best if it is not interrupted by commercials, which can be confusing. Some people with dementia respond well to group music activities, but others will require individual attention. Certain digital music players like iPods with earbuds or headphones are useful in these situations. Individual listening activities will require some oversight and monitoring to assist with the technology. 

2. Aromatherapy

The sense of smell has profound effects on our memory. Think about a scent that brings back pleasant memories for you--perhaps it is the aroma of cookies or bread baking. Or you have a favorite fragrance that is calming and elevates your mood. For thousands of years, aromatherapy has been used to improve sleep quality, reduce stress, manage pain, and improve symptoms of depression. Some of the aromatherapy activities that have worked well with dementia patients are:

Essential oils

Evidence suggests that essential oils, particularly lavender, peppermint, rosemary, bergamot, ginger, and lemon balm, can help calm people with dementia and help with aggression and agitation. Scents also stimulate cognition. Essential oils can be applied via cream to hands.

Cooking or baking

Here’s where those fresh baked cookies and bread come in. Assisting someone with dementia to cook or bake has the additional benefit of tactile involvement. If the person is unable to help, just the aroma itself can have a calming effect.

3. Touch

Touch or tactile activities for people with dementia are very individual. It might take some trial and error to find out someone’s particular preference.

Still, it can have very positive benefits when you do—some people like rougher surfaces, and others like softer materials. There are hundreds of tactile objects online to choose from—some people with dementia like to fidget and respond well to items requiring simple, repetitive movement.

4. Sight

There is a reason memory boards outside people’s rooms in memory care are so popular. Positive memories are evoked by photographs and personal objects that have meaning.

Other activities include sorting through pictures or looking at bird feeders outside a window. Some people with dementia will enjoy watching old movies on TV. Bright light therapy has been used with dementia patients to improve sleep and mood.

ยป MORE: Do you know someone who's experiencing a loss? This checklist is here to help.

 

Crafty Memory Care Facility Activity Ideas

Crafts are hugely popular in memory care because they can reach all of the senses. The challenge of crafts is to make it a group activity that everyone responds to; otherwise, a craft activity has to be one on one. Craft ideas are only limited by imagination and the cognitive level of the resident. We will highlight some of the typical craft activities used in memory care.

5. Clay or playdough

Clay and playdough are safe, tactile activities that keep people occupied and involved. The final product is unimportant. It is the activity itself that has value. As a group activity, conversations can also take place.

6. Sorting and arranging

Sorting and arranging are very soothing and calming activities for people with dementia. Creative ideas include sorting hardware pieces such as washers, nuts, and bolts.

Arranging coins is also very popular. Flower arranging is an excellent activity because no matter how it is done, it is satisfying in the end.

7. Painting

Painting with non-toxic paints is an activity almost anyone can do. Memory care communities use finger paints, but there is some controversy about finger paints. Some people feel that activities for people with dementia should be age-appropriate. With some help, residents can use paint brushes or colored pencils for art projects.

Social Memory Care Activity Ideas

Social activity ideas are probably the most common activities in memory care because they take less staff. The other benefit is to keep people with dementia from feeling isolated and lonely. Group social activities have to be handled carefully since not all activities may be appropriate or accepted by everyone in the group. It is not unusual for people to become agitated or just wander away from the group.

8. Walking

For mobile people, walking is a great activity. It gets people outside, improves mood, and decreases agitation. Great care is taken to make sure that no one falls or wanders off and with proper supervision, walking outside or inside can be an appropriate and uplifting activity.

9. Movies or TV shows

Although there may not be a lot of conversation, watching a movie with a group of people can be very comforting. It can be a passive activity where people don’t feel pressured or anxious about communicating, yet they can enjoy other people’s company. 

10. Chair exercises

Any physical activity can help with agitation and sundowning, where people become more anxious at night and have trouble sleeping. Chair exercises, for people who can do them, are offered in most memory care communities. Balloon toss is also well-liked where people sit in chairs in a circle and hit a balloon to one another. 

Simple sit to stand exercises improve balance and posture. Easy seated stretching movements are beneficial, along with a seated movement to music. Even dancing is enjoyable for people who have good balance and endurance. 

11. Pet therapy

Pet therapy (animal-assisted therapy) should only be used with people who are familiar with and comfortable with animals. Dogs are the most common animal used in pet therapy, but cats, horses, and other animals have been used.

Research shows very positive benefits for people with dementia who engage in pet therapy. Some of the benefits include improving sundowning behavior, the release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin and dopamine, and enhanced communication and memory. Robots disguised as animals have also shown similar benefits.

Memory Care Activities

If you have a loved one in memory care, pay close attention to the activities for residents. We suggest taking a proactive role in suggesting activities that you think your loved one would respond to. Most activities directors may be grateful for suggestions. Also, consider using some of our tips to keep your loved one engaged, happy, and calm.


Sources

  1. “Art and Music.” The Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/daily-care/art-music
  2. Klimova, Blanka, Josef Toman, and Kamil Kuca. “Effectiveness of the Dog Therapy for Patients with Dementia - a Systematic Review.” BMC Psychiatry, Biomed Central, 6 September 2019, www.bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-019-2245-x
  3. Laguipo, Angela Betsaida B. “Aromatherapy for Dementia.” News Medical Life Sciences, www.news-medical.net/health/Aromatherapy-for-Dementia.aspx
  4. Moreno-Morales, Celia, Raul Calero, Pedro Moreno-Morales, and Cristina Pintado. “Music Therapy in the Treatment of Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Frontiers in Medicine, National Institutes for Health, 19 May 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7248378/ 

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