Activities for Persons with Memory Loss

Occupational Therapist and Owner of MindStart–

Activities for Persons with Memory Loss

By Monica Heltemes

Minneapolis, MN, January 5, 2011 – “That’s enough of this” my occupational therapy client, MaryAnn,  tells me when we try to work on one of the 100 piece jigsaw puzzles that she has enjoyed doing for many years.  Her words do not tell me but her expressions and demeanor does – she is frustrated that she can no longer do the puzzle, due to the effects of her dementia, and would rather sit quietly in a chair than submit herself to activities that blatantly show how confused she is.

Inactivity for persons with dementia

Dementia impacts a person’s ability to engage in occupation or everyday activities, due to the symptoms, which include memory loss, difficulty planning and problem solving, and decreased initiative. They need to rely on others to create periods of engagement. Richard Taylor, PhD a psychologist diagnosed with dementia and author of Alzheimer’s from the Inside Out , says persons with dementia “cannot by themselves redefine a new sense of purpose for themselves…. They will need others to find/create activities of daily living that lead them to a sense of self-fulfillment or their sense of purpose…Persons withdraw prematurely because it is easier, safer, and they don’t know what else to do.”

Studies have shown nursing home residents with dementia spend 70-80% of their time with nothing to do.  “I’m dying of boredom” was the statement made by a gentleman living in an Alzheimer’s care unit to Colorado State University Head of Department of Occupational Therapy, Wendy Wood.  

According to research conducted by Wood and published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy in May 2009, the remaining cognitive, social, and emotional capabilities of persons with dementia living in Alzheimer’s units were rarely tapped into.  This promotes “excess disability” or disability beyond what is directly attributable to the disease itself. This could lead to a more rapid decline.

Activity-centered care

As concerns are raised about the use of certain medications to manage behaviors in persons with dementia, new approaches to care are being trialed.  Dementia activities such as music, dancing, art, and storytelling are all approaches that have been found effective in the care for persons with dementia.

The common element in all of them is engagement – or doing. Even routine tasks are beneficial for persons with dementia.  Having the person help with dressing, setting the table, getting the mail, or answering the door are all tasks that he can be set-up and directed to do, even if it is only parts of the task.

 Humans are occupational beings.  We each choose to do things each day that make us who we are and that give meaning to our lives.  Dementia disrupts this flow. For these people, it threatens their well-being and personhood.  Targeted care that incorporates daily engagement is key and has many benefits.

Benefits of activity engagement, per numerous research studies, include:  cognitive stimulation, improved sleep, better social connections, , reduced anxiety, increased quality of life and self-identity. Also, activity engagement decreases caregiver burden and may help to manage behaviors without medications.

 How to engage persons with dementia

In order to prevent excess disability and reap the benefits engaging in activity can afford, persons with dementia need caregivers to provide opportunities to tap into their abilities on a daily basis.  This can be a challenge for the caregiver – which may be a family member, home health aide or other facility staff.  The caregiver may not know how to go about it or may have limited time to do so.

So here are 3 key elements you need to engage persons with dementia.  Remember the “3 R’s” of education – Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic?  Let’s replace those with these 3 R’s – Routine, Reduce, and Reassurance.


Persons with dementia do best with routine.  To help bring some order to a confusing world of forgetfulness and disorientation, the person needs the same activities done in a typical order and timeline each day. What works best for you may not be what works best for him and her.  Usually, going with their flow will make the day easier for both of you.

Think of incorporating different types of activities into the typical day.  For instance, self-cares, such as dressing or bathing.  Even if the person needs help, let them do a few steps that they can, like wash their face after you get them started with the motion. Also something social, such as eating breakfast together, something physical, such as taking a walk, and something sensory, such as smelling the garden flowers or listening to music.  Also, try to incorporate activities based on the person’s past interests.


Persons with dementia have short-circuits in the way their brain works.  They need things to be reduced, so that they can work their way around the short-circuits: reduction in the number of steps of the task; reduction in the directions given for the task; and reduction in the level of abstractness of the task. The level of reductions that need to be made will vary, depending the extent of the deficits or short-circuits the person has.

Examples of how to reduce, include using multiple choice instead of open-ended questions, playing a game with only matching involved, and using short, simple sentences to direct the next step.


The person with dementia may at time be reluctant to participate when you ask them.  This may be due to fear of failure, as mentioned above.  A more reassuring way to ask him to do something is to ask for their help.  This often is more successful.

Again, offer reassurance throughout the activity and after – “You are doing great! Thanks for your help!” – gives the person pride in that moment, a feeling that can last long after the activity.

As any good occupational therapist would do, I did not leave MaryAnn to sit in her chair, unengaged.  I modified the activity to meet her needs.  MaryAnn could do puzzles with less pieces and less detail in the picture, which are available from MindStart-Activities for Persons with Memory Loss.  She once again was able to enjoy what makes her who she is.

Monica Heltemes is a practicing occupational therapist and Owner of MindStart.  MindStart designs and produces activity products specifically for persons with memory loss. They can be used in private homes, nursing homes, memory care units, and adult daycare programs. These adapted activities include User Guides and can be used by staff, family members, friends, and volunteers to help keep persons with dementia engaged.  Please visit us at  Monica can be contacted at

6 Replies to “Activities for Persons with Memory Loss”

  1. Thank you for the VERY informative post.

    I am experiencing difficulty getting my mother involved in the nursing home activities. She replaces time spent doing creative fun things (crafts, bingo, current event discussions) with sleeping. Whenever I arrive at the home she is curled under her blankets. I can manage 80% of the time to get her up and involved, but if I’m not there to force the issue, she will sleep her day away. It is DEFINITELY speeding up her decline.

    This post has loaded me with tools to get her more involved. THANK YOU for this!

  2. I can see you happen to be an expert at your field! I am launching a web site soon, and your details is going to be really useful for me.. Thanks for all your assist and wishing you all of the success.

  3. Reading your blog I wanted to introduce you to Memory Jogging Puzzles and Match Games… developed for Alzheimer’s & Dementia patients ease in handling and for patients to experience SUCCESS.

    6 & 12 piece puzzles with age appropriate themes by Norman Rockwell – The Saturday Evening Post are proven to capture attention, stimulate memories, motivate, build confidence and more.

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