By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Sometimes it seems people with Alzheimer's disease have lost all concept of boredom. How else could they stand to spend a day staring at the same wall or shuffling up and down the same hallway?
The truth is, Alzheimer's patients may feel boredom as deeply as anyone else. And when they can no longer plan their own activities, the boredom can turn to frustration. A person may start wandering the house or become agitated, all because his mind and body has been idle for too long.
As a caregiver, you can greatly improve your loved one's life -- and your own -- by finding activities that will keep him busy and engaged. His mood will improve, some of his troubling behaviors just might disappear, and you may find more time for yourself.
But choosing the right activity can be tricky. If it's too complicated, your loved one may feel frustrated and inadequate. But anything too simple or childish -- in the early and middle stages of Alzheimer's -- could be demeaning. Here are some suggestions for activities, some of which almost any patient can accomplish.
- Play some music. Alzheimer's doesn't destroy a person's love for music. In fact, tunes from his past may be appreciated now more than ever. Try singing some of his favorite songs and asking him to join in. You can also introduce him to a simple new instrument, such as a tambourine. If he played an instrument in his younger years, he may not want to play it anymore. Every wrong note or chord might just remind him of his fading skills.
- Dance. Your loved one doesn't have to make music to appreciate it. A study found that Alzheimer's patients who listened to big band music every day were happier and more alert -- and even had better memory -- than patients who didn't listen to music. Soothing, familiar tunes may also help him calm down during necessary tasks such as bathing and dressing. He may also still enjoy dancing, especially if you join in. One former caregiver recounts how she and her mother used to put on Elvis Presley's "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog" and do the twist with her father, who had early-onset Alzheimer's but thoroughly enjoyed dancing even during the later stages of the disease.
- Take a walk. Your loved one may seem too weak and listless to exercise, but that's exactly why he needs more physical activity. Take a stroll in the park or down the street, perhaps holding hands. Gentle weight training and aerobic exercise can lead to incredible improvements in balance, strength and walking ability for even the most elderly and frail people.
- Break out the clay. A paintbrush and a canvas can stimulate a person's mind for hours. But just as a former piano player may no longer enjoy that instrument, a person who used to draw and paint may feel less frustrated trying something else. See if he enjoys working with clay, sanding wood, making collages from pictures cut from magazines, or arranging flowers in a vase.
- Take your loved one shopping or on other errands with you, if you can. One caregiver reported that her mother, who had Alzheimer's, loved to go with her to visit the local Salvation Army store, selecting only one inexpensive china cup to buy each time.
- Play games together: Your loved one may not be able to play Scrabble or chess like he used to, and he probably doesn't want to break out "Candyland" either. Instead of playing kids' games, people in the early stages of Alzheimer's may enjoy making up simple counting or matching games with cards or dice. He may also like more active games such as playing catch with a balloon or a foam ball.
- Cook together. If your loved one is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, she may enjoy helping plan what to eat, or sharing in a simple task such as tearing lettuce for a salad. She may also simply want to keep you company while you are cooking.
- Catch a (non-scary) movie or show. Especially in the early stages of Alzheimer's, your loved one may delight in going with you to the occasional move or play, especially those that feature romantic comedies.
- Reading. Although reading is confined, sadly, to the earlier stages of Alzheimer's, some people have found much solace in it during that time.
- Visit relatives. If the patient is still able to travel short or long distances, arrange regular visits with other relatives you are close to. If you are lucky, you may be amazed and gratified at how supportive your family members can be.
- Do some light exercise. Alzheimer's patients stand to gain even more: In an exercise program conducted at the University of Arizona, patients' moods improved just as surely as their fitness. A regular walk around the block or a weight-lifting session may also improve a patient's sleep and greatly reduce his agitation and aimless wandering. Ask a doctor to help set up the ideal exercise program for your loved one.
- Look for a "loaner" pet. If you don't already have a pet, consider borrowing one from a neighbor several times a week. Petting a tabby cat or getting some unconditional love from a terrier can give an extra dose of affection and warmth to your loved one's day.
- Visit a playground. Sometimes Alzheimer's patients enjoy sitting and watching small children play. Just be prepared to leave quickly if things get too noisy or hectic.
- Keep a journal together. Your loved one may be able to write entries in the early stage of the disease about his daily activities; later he may dictate them to you while he can still talk. Some people enjoy hearing about what they did the day or the week before, especially if they can't remember it.
- Ask for help with household chores. Folding towels or dusting coffee tables may not sound like fun to you, but such tasks can be deeply satisfying for a person with Alzheimer's disease. Not only will they occupy his mind and hands, they will give him a sense of purpose and accomplishment. With a little supervision, some people in the early stages of the disease may even be able to help out in the kitchen. Others may enjoy watering the plants or digging in the garden.
If a person seems to enjoy a job, try to let him do it as often as he wants. It won't hurt a towel to get folded 50 times in a day. And if the work isn't up to your standards, try to keep it to yourself and do the job over when he isn't watching.
Interviews with Diana Hembree and other people who have served as long-time caregivers for parents with Alzheimer's.
CareSources. Alzheimer's Association. 2010.
Michael Castleman et al. There's Still a Person in There: The Complete Guide to Treating and Coping with Alzheimer's. Putnam Publishers.
Howard Gruetzner, M.Ed. A Caregiver's Guide and Sourcebook. John Wiley & Sons, 1992.
Nancy L. Mace, M.A., and Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H. The 36-Hour Day. Johns Hopkins University Press.
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