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Change and Adapt, but Don’t Stop: How to Provide Meaningful Activities for Those with Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias

Change and Adapt, but Don’t Stop: How to Provide Meaningful Activities for Those with Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias
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May 9, 2011
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I hate Bingo. 

There, I said it.

That popular activity which people of all ages enjoy at local fire halls, senior living communities and kindergarten classrooms across the country is one of my least favorite ways to pass the time.

As a former assisted living activities director, I can tell you that — in my book — the only thing worse than playing Bingo is calling Bingo. Round and round the cage would spin, as I strained to keep my eyes open so that I might read aloud each numbered/lettered ball that rolled down the ramp. (I’m sure it didn’t help that Bingo was usually scheduled at the peak of the midday slump, around 3 p.m.)

Yes, I enjoyed seeing the residents get excited about winning, or fighting about what constitutes postage stamp Bingo, but as I recall, many of them looked as bored as I was.

Here’s the thing: If you didn’t enjoy Bingo when you were a kid, you probably won’t enjoy it as an adult.

Besides, there are so many other fascinating hobbies and engaging activities that it just doesn’t seem fair to resort to Bingo all the time. Yet I would venture to guess that if you were to compare activity calendars for five assisted living facilities in your town, they would all list Bingo at least once.

And what does Bingo have to do with Alzheimer’s, you ask?

Bingo is an activity. Love it or hate it, it’s an activity that some people enjoy whether they have Alzheimer’s or not. True, Alzheimer’s may limit full enjoyment of the game, but just because a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s doesn’t automatically negate all previous interests.

And in the case of interests, hobbies and activity preferences, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis means nothing.

Unfortunately, too many family/professional caregivers feel that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis means everything when it comes to activities, but it doesn’t. Certainly the way the afflicted individuals engage in these activities may change for any number of reasons (medication side effects, lack of sleep, difficulty with language or motor skills, etc.), but the person in your care has not lost all of his or her history or identity. If your Mom enjoyed gardening all her life, why would a diagnosis change that? If Granddad loved watching the World Series and has fond memories of doing so every year since the age of 5, why should he stop?

Alzheimer’s Is About Adaptation

Those living with cognitive impairments — and their caregivers — are constantly adapting to the changes wrought by the disease. Sometimes, those adaptations are subtly applied and integrated into the daily routine; other times, a drastic adjustment is required of both parties. Nevertheless, adaptation is a regular, recurring part of a life with Alzheimer’s.

When planning for and providing meaningful, stimulating activities for those with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, consult the individual’s personal history for clues about favorite pastimes, and use these as the foundation for program/daily routine design. If and when it is necessary, adapt these activities to fit within the framework of the individual’s abilities. Maybe your mom loves to hike but the risk of wandering is too great. Figure out a way that allows her to hike safely without feeling like she’s a child who can’t be trusted. Find a respectful balance that promotes independence while ensuring her well-being.

If your brother enjoys taking beautiful photographs of the birds that come to his backyard feeders, there is no need to let the Alzheimer’s diagnosis take that away too. You may need to help him develop film, you may not. You may need to remind him where the camera is stored when not in use, you may not. Don’t change a thing unless you have to.

Unfortunately, this method is not 100 percent foolproof. Sometimes, the whims of Alzheimer’s disease prevail, wreaking havoc on an individual’s personality/mood, which might mean they lose interest in things that they had enjoyed previously. If the safety of the individual is at risk by participating in certain hobbies or routines, you may need to discontinue or alter them accordingly. My grandfather, an expert woodworker, was bedbound as a result of his Alzheimer’s, so getting him down to tinker in his workshop was not an option. In other cases, the person can be so depressed about their inabilities that they are paralyzed with frustration when they cannot do what they did so easily before. Be sensitive to this possibility, and don’t push your loved one — or yourself — to continue in a particular hobby if it only brings agitation.

Resources for Activity Planning

There are a wealth of articles and resources out there about meaningful, stimulating activity ideas for those with Alzheimer’s/related dementias. Some are better than others, but if you ask me, it all comes to back this idea of identity, to the fact that the person in your care is still an avid reader, classical music lover, golf aficionado, etc. despite the devastating diagnosis.

Storytelling/journaling, art therapy, pet therapy, intergenerational programs, reminiscing, household chores, baking, gardening, music, dancing, exercise, photography — the list goes on.

Explore the possibilities at these links if you’re at a loss, but only after you’ve asked the person in your care what they would like to do first:

1. Activities for People with Alzheimer's

2. 101 Activities for Kids To Do with a Loved One with Alzheimer's

3. 50 Activity Ideas for Someone with Alzheimer's

4. Adapting Activities for People with Alzheimer's

5. Activities for People with Alzheimer's from AARP

What I would offer is this: Alzheimer’s has already complicated things in your life. Don’t make activity planning harder than it has to be. Adapt the activities that you/the person with Alzheimer’s has always enjoyed, and go from there. If you follow this rule-of-thumb, you have, by default, selected an activity that is both meaningful and stimulating, and the simple act of providing this activity can be a real source of comfort (to all parties involved) in the chaos that is Alzheimer’s disease.

Today’s guest post comes from’s Michelle Seitzer. Before becoming a full-time freelance writer, Michelle spent 10 years in the senior living and advocacy world, serving in various roles at assisted living communities throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland, and leading the charge against Alzheimer’s as a public policy coordinator for the Pennsylvania chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association. She has blogged for since November 2008 and currently resides in York, Pennsylvania, with her teacher husband and two Boston Terriers.

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