Research has proven the longer your loved one can live with a sense of independence and autonomy, the better their well-being and longevity.
This is why maintaining that level of independence – keeping your older adult engaged in their normal activities as much as possible – is so important.
Madison Serfas, a certified dementia specialist with Assistance Home Care, weighs in on tips and tools you can implement as a caregiver that will keep your loved one mentally engaged, physically fit and able to complete day-to-day tasks despite their memory impairment.
How to improve mental engagement
We’ve all heard the phrase “the mind is a muscle” so often that its meaning has worn out for many of us. Yet, keeping the brain active builds reserves of healthy brain cells and improves connections between them—literally making the brain stronger, even in people with dementia.
To improve mental engagement in your senior loved one, start with a few key tips:
Reducing the amount of television your loved one watches can be an area of contention in your relationship. Serfas had several recommendations to make reducing television easier in your home.
Use verbal cues
Before the start of the show, try to remind your loved one of the next item on the daily agenda; this can help ease the transition once it’s time to turn off the television, an event that typically causes disruption.
Make use of TV settings
TVs often come with helpful programming settings that can also ease the transition out of screen time.
“Use TV settings like a sleep timer as appropriate to bring screen time to a close or to signal a change in activity,” Serfas suggests.
Remember, instead of watching TV or movies, people with dementia should be encouraged to keep up with their hobbies and interests as long as possible, with caregivers making the necessary adjustments according to their loved one’s abilities. Other mental exercises experts recommend for people with dementia include:
- Doing simple calculations
- Reading aloud from books
- Completing imagery exercises
When your loved one does watch TV or movies, make sure it’s appropriate for people with dementia. Generally, try to find movies and shows that are:
- Fun and upbeat
- Shorter in length
- Not violent
- Simpler in terms of plot and number of characters
- From their era
Spark awareness with music
When used appropriately, music can improve mood, reduce agitation, facilitate positive interactions and improve cognitive function and motor movements. Playing familiar songs from the Baby Boomer era might ignite a spark in your loved one.
Serfas agreed and recommended, “Make a playlist of your loved one’s era and play music during times of high energy.”
If you need help making a playlist, follow these instructional guides on popular streaming services:
Or, try this ready-made playlist, “Songs from the Old Days,” which is specifically curated for older dementia patients.
Physical exercise or occupational therapy regimens
Older adults with mobility or cognitive impairments often find it hard to stick with their physical exercise or occupational therapy regimens. However, movement is critical to their health, longevity and well-being. As a caregiver, you can play a large part in ensuring they complete the correct exercises in the correct manner during the times they’re scheduled to do so.
Serfas recommended asking the occupational therapist for instructions printed with large fonts and visual elements for each exercise. She also suggested doing the exercises with your loved one, as camaraderie goes a long way in lifting the spirits.
Tools and tips to help with memory for day-to-day tasks
Simple household items and office supplies can be transformed into guides, gentle nudges and reminder tools to help keep your loved one on track and your day smooth.
Losing items is often a hallmark of dementia and is a result of memory loss. Your loved one may misplace common items repeatedly, such as their keys, glasses or billfold. It’s also common for them to place their items in unusual places such as the refrigerator, bathroom or microwave.
Common items you use daily can be used as visual cues to help people with dementia find these items.
“Sticky notes, painters tape or labels can provide excellent visual cues to a person with dementia when trying to locate an item, for instance, on the outside of cabinets and drawers,” Serfas said.
The Say it with Symbols website distributes tech-free, adult-appropriate picture communication books, labels and boards you can use around your home.
However, remember that dementia is not just about memory; it’s also about how the brain misinterprets visual information.
This is why it’s important to keep your loved one’s things visible and accessible.
“Keep frequently used or searched-for items at your loved one’s eye level whenever possible,” Serfas recommends
Keeping your loved one mentally and physically active goes a long way in keeping them as independent as possible for as long as possible. Simple contraptions made with household supplies often outperform fancy technology or electronic gadgets when it comes to your loved one’s care, leaving more time for you to interact with them—because the interaction is what will truly bring out their “spark.”