Not only can certain activities help manage the symptoms of dementia, but they also ensure a healthy dose of something we tend to forget when a tough diagnosis comes in: the simple need for everyday joy.
Work with your doctor to make sure that any activity your loved one starts is suitable for their physical and cognitive state. Then, consider these six as viable ways to start finding a new normal in the wake of dementia:
- Dance like no one’s watching. Physical activity is good for everyone – including a senior with dementia. In fact, some activities have been found to have a direct impact on dementia symptoms. Research shows a link between physical exercise and preserving cognitive function in older adults. Studies show that dancing – which blends mental effort, social interaction, and physical activity – is linked to improved memory, attention and focus in seniors with mild cognitive impairment. Other research shows it can actually reduce the risk of dementia all together. All good news for caregivers looking for new ways to help a senior with dementia feel connected, and have fun, at the same time. If dancing isn’t in the cards, don’t discount other physical activity. Even something as basic as going for a walk or doing a chair-based exercise program can improve mood, help sleep habits, and ease other symptoms related to dementia.
- Join the band. Whether or not you can carry a tune, research shows that singing or listening to music can provide a real benefit for someone with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Music goes hand in hand with behavioural and emotional benefits. It’s known to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and agitation – all of which can be a struggle for someone with dementia. Think about how weaving more music into your loved one’s life. It can be as easy as singing in the living room, or as involved as taking piano lessons and practicing at home. One study of adults aged 60 to 85 showed a real improvement in processing speed and memory after just three months of weekly piano lessons and rehearsals.
- Get in the game. Leisure activities are good for the brain. Research shows that people 75 and up who were active in leisure activities had a lower risk of dementia than other seniors. Crossword puzzles, reading and playing cards all stimulate the brain, helping to keep seniors active and thinking. But mental stimulation doesn’t have to be super involved to make a difference. Just trying something new, like varying a routine, can make a difference.
- Keep good company. We know loneliness can be an issue for the aging population. Finding meaningful opportunities for your loved one to stay connected continues to be important after a dementia diagnosis, which can feel isolating, scary or stressful. Help the senior in your life find opportunities to interact with others, stay engaged, and talk. Something as simple as coffee with a friend, a catch-up by phone, or a trip to the store can provide real ways for someone to feel connected to the world around them, even as theirs is shifting.
- Work the food groups. Solid nutrition is important for everyone, seniors included. For someone with dementia, poor nutrition can actually increase behavioural symptoms, making it doubly important to stay on top of you loved one’s diet. What goes in matters. Focus on getting enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into the mix. Also be conscious of what you’re keeping out. Salt, alcohol and caffeine should be limited. Eating with your loved one when you can not only helps you keep an eye on their diet; it also ticks the box on social connectedness for both of you at the same time.
- Manage the stress. Caregiving can be stressful, especially for a senior who has dementia. What we often forget is the diagnosis is stressful for them, too. Dementia – and in its most common form for seniors, Alzheimer’s disease – can send ripple effects of stress. The unknown is often overwhelming. Proactively building in stress management can help. Engaging in some of the activities we’ve talked about here can help. But if the senior you’re caring for is persistently showing symptoms of stress, you may want to consult the doctor or consider more deliberate stress management techniques – like relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, or even journaling. Also this: don’t discount the power of knowledge. For some seniors, doing the research to truly understand what’s going on can be empowering. Helping them access the right resources to do that can be useful to you both.