What is your favorite time of year on Marco Island? For some, it may be fall or winter when there is an abundance of things to do. For others, it’s summer with its sparse traffic, easy dining out, and relaxed pace. Whatever your preference, time may seem to slow down in the summer. Perhaps it’s slow enough that you’re wondering how to fill the hours, how to keep your loved one with dementia engaged and occupied in a positive way.
There is the beach, hot unless you go early or just before sunset, dining out, and the movies, air conditioned, relaxing and enjoyable. These are great activities if all involved like them.
My husband Tom enjoyed walking at the beach. He’d greet every person or child he met with a positive comment even as his disease progressed. Invariably, people responded positively. If, however his disease had caused him to be nasty, comments could have been a problem. Because of his fair skin, we went prepared with wide hats, sunscreen and always a magazine with pictures, like a National Geographic to look at when we rested.
Tom also liked eating out. I’d request a quiet corner to lessen distractions. However, he’d always be attracted to young children. Once he had a child’s attention, he’d move his fingers, “here’s a church, here’s a steeple” to entertain young ones. Sometimes we’d have to move our table when his intrusion into the other family’s meal became too much for them or me.
Tom and I had been moviegoers, but as his disease progressed our selection narrowed to animated or simpler action movies. If a movie was too dark or had little action, he would be ready to leave, no matter that it was only a third or a half over. Unfortunately, I never came up with any alternative to leaving early. Maybe it was his way to get some ice cream or frozen yogurt without having to wait. Other activities that both Tom and my mom liked were singing, playing simple card games, and looking at family pictures.
In addition to these everyday experiences, I’ve learned of so many more great activities. There are numerous lists online and tested ones at facilities for those with dementia. I decided to check with a local expert or two.
I talked with Tammy DeCaro, executive director of Barrington Terrace in Naples. Her list includes activities used at the facility and at home where she helps care for a family member with dementia. Tammy’s first point was that stimulating the right side of the brain, the creative side with music, rhythm, and poetry can be fulfilling for the recipient. “We have had clients who were completely non-verbal but be able to sing hymns or familiar songs clearly and completely.”
One exercise that does this is drumming. Get a small one or several if you have other family members or friends who could make a drum circle. Try to keep a rhythm or play some music and catch it’s beat.
Another suggestion was the use of aromatherapy using scents like lavender for a hand massage or back massage after a shower. It can be very relaxing for the recipient. The use of lavender in particular, can improve sleep and reduce restlessness during the day or night. Linda Alvarez, the memory care program director at Barrington Terrace is the facility’s aromatherapy expert.
Chair exercise is on Tammy’s list with an instruction to sit next to the recipient and a little in front, then to demonstrate each move slowly, allowing for time to respond. Frequent breaks are advised.
Easy art projects with not many steps will also use the creative right brain such as working with clay or with paint and large paintbrushes that are easily held.
The list from Barrington Terrace includes pets to connect with the person, help calm anxiety, and lower blood pressure. If you don’t have a pet, the suggestion is to visit the local humane society or ask a neighbor to visit with their dog or cat. This brings back the memory of Tom’s connection to a neighbor’s Yorkie. If Toby wasn’t at his home, his owner knew where to look, at Uncle Tom’s.
For a loved one who likes to eat, try making snacks together. Barrrington’s list suggests making fruit kabobs. Put several bowls out and fill with separate kinds of fruit. Help your companion guide the fruit onto a metal skewer without points or a popsicle stick. The ones you don’t eat right away can be refrigerated for a quick, healthy snack on a hot day.
If you don’t want to go to the beach or mobility is an issue, Tammy suggests bringing the beach to your home. Fill a tub with sand and bury large shells and other fun items in it. Have different sets of things to hide and make it a contest to see how quickly they can be found. The tactile feel of the different textures, sand and shells, stimulates the mind and body.
“Don’t stay stuck inside,”Tammy writes. Take walks and use a wheelchair if needed. Go to a farmer’s market, to a park or playground and watch children play, and to the beach with rentable large wheel chairs.
Still other ideas come from Leigh Bul- len, life enrichment director at Terracina Grand. Their Montessori Inspired Lifestyle approach is resident driven, Maria Montessori’s methods adapted for adults by Dr. Cameron Camp, founder of the Center for Applied Research in Dementia. The Montessori method uses self-directed activity, hands on learning, and collaborative play. The following four activities are used at the facility and can be adapted for use at home.
The purse hunt, an activity for women, involves making a list of items commonly found in a purse. Place the items in a purse. Give the list to someone with dementia and ask her to read the items. Or give the purse and ask for each item. The activity may stir up memories followed by conversation.
At Terracina Grand, women gather for the hospitality committee. After reading the group’s mission statement, they make get well cards, cutting, pasting, and painting. An individual can also do this with their caregiver’s help. The finished card(s) can be taken to someone who is sick.
Helping others involves dementia patients folding napkins while seated around a table. Conversations can develop about special meals and special china. Just before the meal, napkins are placed on the dining table.
In the reading corner activity, individuals are seated around a table, each with the same large print book on a simple topic such as cookies or flowers. The individuals take turns reading. When finished, conversation is initiated about memories, thoughts and ideas.
Online are other Montessori activities for dementia patients: www.enlivant.com/communities. Their site notes the Montessori method places an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a person’s natural psychological, physical, and social development. A caregiver sets up a simple activity with everyday items and allows the person with dementia to complete the task. If too easy, the caregiver can increase the difficulty. Completing a task can lead to a sense of accomplishment while reconnecting the individual with a part of his personal history.
Cognitive skills like answering trivia questions and discussions about current events challenge those with higher cognitive abilities. With more severe dementia, simple puzzles like matching words with objects or identifying famous landmarks allow the mind to stay active.
Life skill activities include sorting or planting seeds, using hand tools, baking, folding clothes, or household chores.
Movement exercises can be in a chair or standing, incorporating slow, deep breaths. Have the person identify the parts of his/ her body. If seated, suggest picking an apple from a tree, picking flowers from a field, or placing flowers in a vase.
Sensory activities can help keep the mind alert. For the sense of smell, use scented candles with aromas such as citrus, lavender, cherry, or vanilla. Ask an individual to identify the scent. For taste, have your loved one place her hands over her eyes. Line up three different kinds of fruit. Have them take a piece of each and see if they can identify what they’re eating. For touch, have them identify an object by picking it up.
Music is a popular and effective way to engage those with dementia, as the brain area identifying music is one of the last affected, according to the Enlivant.com site. Listening to music, identifying songs, dancing with groups, and singing along with others are great bonding activities. Using simple instruments such as a drum or a bell incorporate movement.
Art activities can be choosing a picture they would like to draw or copying a photo. If done in a small group while painting, conversations can develop.
Socialization activities connected with dining include setting the table, having your loved one prepare their favorite dish, or having a conversation during dinner. This sharing helps everyone feel like they belong and encourages them to interact with others.
Although I did some of the activities with my mom and my husband, such as listening to music, identifying songs, singing songs and participating in singalongs, I’m sure they would have liked some of the suggested activities like drumming, plus making and eating fruit kabobs. I might try both of those.
Shirley Woolaway has an M. Ed. in counseling and worked in journalism, in business, and as a therapist in Pennsylvania. She has 25 years personal experience with dementia as a caregiver for family members with Alzheimer’s disease, and nine years as the coordinator of an Alzheimer’s Association memory loss/caregiver support group, earlier in Pennsylvania and now on Marco Island. We believe that Shirley’s insights will prove helpful to many of our readers.
For help on all aspects of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias call the national Alzheimer’s Association confidential, 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900 or the local Bonita Springs office at 239-405-7008 for care consults and support group information. Also helpful with local educational programs, workshops, and support groups, is the Naples Alzheimer’s Support Network, 239-262-8388.