We’re all familiar with the antsy, gloomy feeling that comes with being cooped up inside for months, when cold winter days turn into dreary spring rainy ones. Less daylight and changes in weather can sometimes lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, and people with Alzheimer’s are even more at risk for SAD because of the nature of the disease. These dreary days can feel even longer and more difficult for them and their caregivers, especially when they don’t have engaging activities built into their routines.
The end of daylight savings in November brings shorter days and longer nights. The loss of daylight plays a significant role in increasing symptoms of sundowner’s syndrome, which influences challenging behaviors as daylight fades. You may notice your loved one becoming bored, overwhelmed, agitated, or increasingly restless earlier in the day than usual during these months, making it difficult to comfort or keep them engaged and follow a routine. They may even begin to wander, which is particularly dangerous in cold and slippery weather.
As a caregiver, you can help your loved one cope throughout the dreary winter months by incorporating indoor and outdoor activities that add stimulation and enjoyment to their daily routine.
The Alzheimer’s Caregivers Network asked the caregiving community to share the best activities you can do with your loved one around the house or in the local community. Read what these caregivers and experts had to say:
Kathleen Spooner, a registered nurse at FirstLight Home Care, offers these ideas that can help your loved one focus on light physical movement and fine motor skills:
“Toss a large soft ball back and forth or roll it back and forth to keep elderly loved ones active. You could fold laundry to occupy time and keep their upper extremities moving, or turn on music from when they were young and encourage them to dance to keep their lower extremity muscles active. Have your loved one string beads using a child’s jewelry kit to make a necklace or bracelet to help work on fine motor skills, or do a fun activity together such as baking cookies.”
If your loved one has restricted mobility, Spooner suggests these low- or no-movement activities to keep them engaged and occupied:
“Go through old magazines and ask them to cut out specific pictures. For example, have them find pictures of dogs and cut them out using safety scissors. Or you could work on jigsaw puzzles with them, depending on the stage of Alzheimer’s. In some cases, children’s puzzles might be more appropriate. If their Alzheimer’s is advanced, but they still can sort items, have them sort things like coins, a deck of cards by suit or number, or objects by shape.”
Spooner reminds caregivers that connecting with their loved ones over special memories and activities can be a great way to keep them engaged and comforted through dreary winter months:
“Spend time connecting with your loved one about their past and ask them questions such as their first house, first car, favorite teacher, or favorite city from their past. If they have a specific skill, such as knitting, have them teach you.”
Annie Morris, editor in chief of Canadian business magazine Made in CA, watches the toll Alzheimer’s disease takes on her aunt and aunt’s cargivers. She shares some of the activities that have helped her aunt and her caregivers get through the dreary winter months:
“My aunt is a music lover, and playing her favorite music has been a great source of comfort for her. Singing along to the songs she loves and tapping her feet to the beat has been a great way to keep her engaged and uplifted. Arts and crafts have been another great way to keep my aunt engaged and entertained. Simple crafts such as coloring, painting and making beaded necklaces are some of the activities that keep her mind and hands occupied.”
Morris adds that movement and fresh air have been great outlets for her aunt:
“My aunt is immobile, but we make sure to keep her moving as much as possible. Simple physical therapy exercises such as stretching, gentle movements and even massages have been a great way to keep her active and relieve stress. Even though it’s winter, we make sure to get my aunt outside as much as possible. Fresh air and natural light have been known to have a positive effect on individuals with Alzheimer’s. Simple outdoor activities such as taking a walk, sitting in the sun or even bird watching can help uplift the mood and bring joy.”
Jennifer Drake, an account executive at the United Disabilities Services, says cooking and baking are great ways to bring your loved one enjoyment and comfort in the winter months:
“Making delicious dishes together may help your loved one recall wonderful memories of when and why they made it for someone special. It also allows for some one-on-one conversation while preparing the recipe, and enjoying the final dish or treat together is a great way to celebrate the accomplishment.”
Drake shares how crafting can be another way to bring your loved one some joy while keeping their motor skills sharp and mind engaged in meaningful ways:
“Crafting helps with many different skills, such as counting, dexterity, color recognition, coordination, and socialization. Make different winter-themed crafts, prepare a small indoor herb or flower garden, or make a bird feeder to help your loved one look forward to the spring. Coloring helps ease stress and anxiety and assists with eye/hand coordination. Work on puzzle books, word searches, crossword puzzles, and Sudoku, and make it a challenge to see who can get the most correct answers. Or, play a game of trivia with questions focused on eras in their lives that were important to them.”
Mandy Shoemaker, the co-founder of Connectivities and Prairie Elder Care, suggests “playing tourist” and exploring your local communities for activities. She offers these ideas:
“Volunteer at a local animal shelter. Spending time with animals has been shown to have numerous benefits for people living with dementia, so volunteering at a local animal shelter is a great activity for animal lovers. Jobs like helping to socialize puppies and taking dogs for walks are great options.
Have lunch at a senior center. Senior centers offer activities, social events, and meals tailored to seniors. Many also have day programs that provide supervised activities for people living with dementia/Alzheimer’s disease. Check your local senior center’s website or call them to find out what they currently offer.
Visit a local museum. Museums often have special tours for people living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Call ahead and see what the museum offers.
Even if you’ve lived in your town for years, there’s probably still plenty that you haven’t seen. Playing tourist is a great way to spend time together while exploring your surroundings. Plus, it doesn’t require any special equipment or skills — just a sense of adventure!”
She adds that music and nostalgia can be powerful tools for improving your loved one’s mood all year round, but especially throughout dreary months:
“Playing a simple song, a lyric, or a melody can help tremendously with engagement and provide a fun atmosphere. Don’t be afraid to be silly and show off your dance moves for them! And materials for reminiscing, such as old photo albums, yearbooks, magazines, catalogs, TV shows, and movies, give endless opportunities to reminisce about the ‘good old days.’ For people living with dementia, instead of asking them if they remember, share some of your memories first. This may help them open up and feel more comfortable sharing or relax enough to make deeper connections.”
Dr. Allison Hefley, clinical manager on the healthcare team of Executive Mental Health, says activities that connect the elderly with their senses can be calming and grounding:
“There are many activities which can connect elderly to their senses, which can be calming and grounding. Give a light hand or neck massage with a scented lotion or oil. Find objects around the house with strong smells, like a lemon or coffee, and see if they can guess what it is with their eyes closed. Play a game where you put an object in their hand and they guess what it is with their eyes closed. Something as simple as brushing hair can be relaxing and enjoyable. Buy a package of fun-colored children’s socks and let them match them up.”
Caregivers can also create fun games out of familiar idioms and phrases:
“Idioms, such as “A stitch in time saves nine,” are phrases that are very familiar to many elderly. These can used to create a fun game. The caregiver can provide the start of the phrase and the elderly person tries to finish it. For example, “Never look a gift horse ____.” This activity can create a sense of mastery and connect elderly to memories related to the phrase. Lists of idioms can be found on the internet to help get started.”
Jennifer Prescott, founder and COO of Blue Water Homecare, tells caregivers to implement movement into their loved one’s daily routine, especially when there are a few cold days ahead and going outdoors will be unlikely. The registered nurse and certified dementia practitioner offers these creative and gentle fitness ideas that can be done around the home:
“Finding new ways to use common household objects can be a fun inspiration to get moving and create a ‘gym’ at home. You can use soup cans or water bottles as hand weights, a tightly rolled-up towel as a resistance band, and a sturdy chair (without wheels) for a variety of seated exercises. Pillows can be squeezed to perform repetitive tension-type drills between arms and legs or strengthen the core with ab exercises.
Turn household chores into workouts. Simple activities such as sweeping, vacuuming, and even folding clothes can offer some significant movement benefits. Make sure that your loved one is steady on their feet while doing these chores, and make sure they aren’t lifting anything too heavy or reaching for something too high as they are tidying up.
Many gyms offer virtual classes, and many websites provide workout videos specifically for seniors, like Senior Fitness with Meredith, Silver Sneakers, and Native Path. Try scheduling time for your loved one to connect virtually with a friend or group of seniors for a workout. While chatting, they can perform simple chair exercises, light stretches, or easy yoga poses together.”
Caregiving Advice founder Michelle Seitzer offers a list of indoor and outdoor activities you can do with your loved one during dreary winter months:
“Read old cookbooks, peruse recipes online, and watch a cooking show/documentary together. You don’t even have to bake or cook anything; just enjoy combing through a box of handwritten recipes or flipping through the pages of a favorite cookbook.
Turn off the news! That only adds to the dreariness and can actually increase the anxiety, stress, and agitation levels of older adults (and caregivers)! Watch old children’s shows or game shows together, like ‘The Price Is Right’ or ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.’
Bundle up and go outside! You don’t have to walk anywhere, just find a sunny spot on the porch, front yard, or patio and get at least 10 minutes’ worth of Vitamin D and fresh air.
Listen to books on tape or CD and poetry podcasts; there are many ways to enjoy reading together or separately, and you don’t need 20/20 vision to do it.
Have a cup of tea or coffee midday with a special dessert and spend some time reminiscing together about what you remember from winter seasons in the past.
Birds provide endless hours of entertainment — for free! Designate a corner of the living room by a window with adequate aviary activity.
Write letters and cards; the physical act of handwriting is soothing and delightful, and the receiver will thank you.
Wash windows together; There’s no better time than the slower, quieter winter months to get those windows sparkling for spring.
Sort, fold, pair, accessorize; open that messy sock drawer and make matches; take out scarves and jewelry and sort them or pair them together just for fun.
Watch travelogues or travel documentaries/shows, or take online courses that help you ‘go’ somewhere else, traveling in your mind and memory together.”