10 Activities to Help You Connect With Your Loved One With Dementia

When a loved one's memory fades, the time you spend together today can be powerful for both your hearts and minds.

Dementia affects relationships

Every year, there are more than 10 million new dementia cases, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International. This means many of us navigate this condition with spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings, and more.

If you love someone who has dementia, you know the disease is often accompanied by symptoms that go beyond memory loss. For the patient, dementia can trigger paranoia, speech difficulties, and, at times, even a lack of empathy, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). These symptoms usually only make the caregiver’s experience more complicated and emotional.

Fortunately, finding moments to connect with a loved one who has dementia, and enriching their life with things you can do together, is possible. In fact, welcoming them into a few of your regular tasks may not only help the two of you enjoy some one-on-one time—but as you might discover with a few of the ideas listed below, it could also help to remind you that there can be joy in the most basic routines.

Below, find wisdom and ideas from geriatrics clinician Jeffrey Landsman, MD, of Mercy Medical Center, and longtime family caregiver, Breeda Miller. Many activities for dementia patients and their caregivers are relatively easy to plan.

Pull out old photo albums

senior couple looking at old photo album together at homeWestend61/Getty Images

For some dementia patients, looking through old photos can unlock memories from childhood and early adulthood. “Though someone may not remember you—they may have no short-term memory—long-term memory can persist,” Dr. Landsman tells TheHealthy. “Somebody with pretty advanced dementia may still have some of the old memories available.”

Digging out old albums or boxes of photos might take a little time, but it’s likely to be very rewarding. Your loved one with dementia might be able to talk about old times in a way that they haven’t for months (possibly years).

Organize a cabinet or shelf together

This simple activity can check an item off your to-do list while also reconnecting with an older family member. Miller recalls that her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, loved “the tactile exercise of smoothing and folding paper” while unpacking and organizing a box of fragile china dishes.

Not only can this be good for a dementia patient’s spirit, but it might actually “help improve dementia-specific issues,” according to a 2018 review of studies published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging that suggested sensory activities might also improve dementia symptoms. (For ideas to help keep your brain healthy, read 16 Memory-Boosting Tips from Brain Scientists.)

Listen to music together

Music can help dementia patients with symptoms of long-term depression and cognitive function, according to recent research published in Frontiers in Medicine.

Dr. Landman echoes this finding. He explains that playing music from your loved one’s younger years may help them perk up emotionally and even physically, as he’s seen some dementia patients begin to sing or dance along with old favorites.

And not only might you also find it to be pleasurable for listening; but music may be beneficial for your health, too.

Watch old movies

Grandmother and granddaughter embracing while watching movie on laptop at homeFG Trade/Getty Images

Like music, old movies can spark long-lost memories. Dr. Landman says some dementia patients have memories linked to old-time films—perhaps they remember the plot or even a childhood friend who attended the theater with them.

Watching the classics alongside your loved one with dementia could help you relax together, and potentially lead to an engaging chat after the film.

Fold laundry together

Like organizing a cabinet, folding laundry can be a ho-hum chore that suddenly turns more meaningful when you include your loved one who is losing his or her memory. “When my mother and mother-in-law would get ‘antsy,’ I would have several simple tasks ready that they could ‘help’ me with,” says Miller.

One of these activities, she says, was folding laundry. Miller says simple, useful activities can help people with dementia stop fixating on negative emotions, focusing on doing a task that makes them feel purposeful, and connect with the people around them.

So rather than folding and putting away laundry before a visit with your grandparent or parent who’s been diagnosed with dementia, think about saving the task to enjoy together. When conversation lapses, connecting by doing something together is still possible.

Clean together

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) suggests sweeping or vacuuming with a friend or family member with Alzheimer’s disease. When it came to doing things around the house, Miller says her mother-in-law loved washing dishes and wiping down countertops. Meanwhile, Miller would assist (and provide some safe oversight) by supplying the soap and water. “She was in her element, and I was thrilled to have help,” Miller recalls.

These simple activities for dementia patients can help them feel useful while offering an opportunity to connect with loved ones.

(Are you thinking about refreshing your home? Read up on the 14 Best-Reviewed Cleaning Products on Amazon.)

Go for a walk

Walking is linked to better health, boosted mood, and even longer life. Walking can be so beneficial that the experts at NIA also recommend walking as a good activity for dementia patients. (It may go without saying, but someone with dementia should always be accompanied on a stroll.)

For a loved one who struggles to remember your shared history, regular walks offer a chance for sharing observations about the weather, the sunlight, the flowers you see, and more. Or, even if you walk together in silence, a little fresh air and activity to get the blood flowing will almost certainly do you both good.

(By the way, if you’re feeling inspiration to get outdoors when it warms up, here’s more—check out 10 Surprising Ways Gardening Is One of the Healthiest Things You Can Do.)

Play a card game

Smiling grandmother playing cards with family at homeThe Good Brigade/Getty Images

Some older adults with dementia can still remember playing classic card games such as Euchre, Rummy, and Go Fish. This entertaining activity is a great way for family members of all ages to share some laughs and also experience some cognitive stimulation with their loved ones.

Dr. Landsman suggests that if the person with dementia says something incorrect—whether it’s a family member’s name or a rule in a card game—it’s best to let them be, as correcting inconsequential errors can create unnecessary tension and take the spotlight off the fun.

Bake family recipes

The NIA offers cooking and baking as activities to promote healthy eating in dementia patients, but Miller notes this is also a beautiful way to put everything else aside and connect on an emotional level, when it really matters most.

Her mother, for instance, loved baking apple pies. But one time when they baked together, Miller says she initially felt exhausted and overwhelmed for having to add another item to her to-do list. As it turned out, the process of baking together would become a monumental memory. “It wasn’t about the pie,” she says. “It was about making the pie. I am so grateful that I made the time to make that pie with her.” Miller says her mother passed away just three weeks later. That pie would be the last one they baked together.

Work on a puzzle together

Working on a puzzle can help engage dementia or Alzheimer’s patients’ minds, according to NIA. Whether visual puzzles or crossword puzzles, any cognitively challenging activity can help improve thinking skills over the longterm, according to research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

Of course, this is not meant to be a means to “fix” your loved one’s memory loss. Completing a puzzle will not cure dementia. But it can support your loved one’s functioning and make them feel accomplished in the hours you spend in partnership on the task.

Sources

Leandra Beabout
Leandra is an Indiana-based freelance journalist and content writer with a background in education. She has written for a variety of publications, including CNN, Lonely Planet, Greatist, and Fodor's Travel.