Concentration can be a major challenge for a person with Alzheimer’s. Nearby conversations, environmental clutter and background noises can prove distracting during activities — and, in some cases, your loved one may simply “tune out” and forget what they’re doing. However, with a few simple adjustments, you’ll find it much easier to keep them focused and interested.
While there’s no single foolproof solution, some patience, trial-and-error, and a personal touch will go a long way toward keeping a person with Alzheimer’s engaged. That can be a major help for you as a caregiver, too, since quiet activity periods are perfect times to take a much-needed break — or even catch a few minutes of sleep.
Here are some handy tips for keeping your loved one engaged, by choosing activities they’ll genuinely enjoy, and creating an environment that minimizes distraction.
Plan activities that reflect your loved one’s interests, and fit their skills.
Every case of Alzheimer’s is unique — and so is the mind of each person who has it. Just because many older people play bingo and do crossword puzzles doesn’t necessarily mean your loved one will have any interest in those activities. In fact, they’ll be much more likely to show interest in games and projects that relate to their individual interests.
For example, if your loved one is (or was) an avid golf player, they might have fun playing with a mini-golf set, or riding around a local course in a golf cart. If they like gardening, they may enjoy potting and planting flowers with you. If they’re a music lover, try putting on some classic tunes and singing along together. If they miss making art, invite them to join you in experimenting with non-toxic paints, markers, clay or play-dough. And if they love to read, you can help them wind down in the evening by reading aloud from a favorite book. With a little creative thinking, you’ll soon find ways to personalize activities to fit your loved one’s passions and skills.
Think of small ways to keep your loved one involved in day-to-day tasks.
One of the most effective ways to keep a person with Alzheimer’s engaged is to involve them in your daily routine, by encouraging them to help with laundry, meal preparation, and other tasks around the home. A sense of active participation in daily life can improve your loved one’s mood, support their mental and physical well-being, and even delay the onset of dementia.
If your loved one shows interest in cooking, for example, you might ask them to read recipe instructions to you, or measure ingredients — depending on their abilities. Folding laundry is another great household activity to try with the person in your care. The gentle textures and scents of fabrics can soothe anxiety, while the familiar rhythm of the work is easy to follow. Remember that results aren’t the important part; what matters most is to give the person with Alzheimer’s the confidence-boosting feeling of “making themselves useful,” by keeping them involved in the household’s day-to-day routine.
Before starting, minimize distractions and make sure your loved one is comfortable.
A distraction-free environment is crucial for keeping your loved one’s attention. Clutter and noise can both make it hard for a person with Alzheimer’s to focus — so before starting the activity you’ve planned, do your best to remove distractions from your surroundings. If you’re at home, turn off the TV and radio, and consider closing the windows to reduce outdoor noise. If you’re in a public place, on the other hand, just try to find a quiet area without too many people.
Your loved one’s attitude and comfort level will also make a big difference. Many caregivers find it’s best to start an activity right after breakfast or lunch, when the person in their care has just eaten their fill, and is properly hydrated. It’s also a smart idea to try new activities on days when your loved one is fairly well-rested, relatively pain-free, and already in a positive mood. Last but not least, make sure they’re not too hot or cold, and have visited the restroom recently. Once you’re sure they’re comfortable, it’s time to get started!
Keep it simple, be patient with mistakes, and adapt the activity as needed.
It’s usually a good idea to kick off the activity by making eye contact with your loved one, ensuring you have their attention, and inviting them to participate with a simple but specific request; for example, “Mom, can you help me plant these flowers along this row?” If your loved one responds positively, you’re off to a great start! If they seem totally disinterested, on the other hand, don’t sweat it. Just skip the activity for now, and give it another try later.
Activities with just one or two steps tend to be most engaging for people with Alzheimer’s — especially in the disease’s later stages, when complex tasks can become extremely hard to follow. Even with simple activities, though, your loved one will likely lose focus a few times, and may need to be reminded what they’re doing. That’s perfectly normal. As long as they’re enjoying the activity, and the environment is reasonably distraction-free, a bit of eye contact and a gentle reminder should be enough to bring their attention back.
Mistakes will almost certainly happen along the way. Be patient, and gently encourage your loved one to keep trying. Even if they completely “zone out,” that may just mean they’re exhausted, or have had enough of the activity for now. Again, it may be worth trying again later — or adapting the activity to make it easier. However, if you notice your loved one is becoming angry or frustrated, it’s usually best to redirect their attention to something more calming.
After you’re finished, take a few moments to reflect on what went well, what went wrong, and what could have gone better. Did your loved one respond well to the idea? Did they get distracted, annoyed or confused at any particular point? Would a simpler explanation, a smaller number of steps, or a more personal touch make it easier for them to stay engaged? Those insights can all give you ideas for making the activity more enjoyable next time.