There seems to have been a lot in the news recently about the benefits of activities for people with dementia. As an OT this always makes me prick my ears up, as meaningful activity is at the heart of everything we do. At the ILC Future of Ageing conference, Baroness Sally Greengross called for all older people to be given more opportunities to play, have fun and be silly. Activity has an essential role in boosting mental and physical health and this is just as important for those living with dementia. Of course, it’s important to eat, sleep, go the loo and maintain a good standard of hygiene, this keeps us alive and physically healthy, but where’s the fun part? It’s easy to assume that any increase in activity will lead to an increased sense of well-being, but if the activities don’t have any meaning for those taking part then frustration and boredom sets in, which can trigger unsettled and sometimes challenging behaviour. Before you know it the relaxing group activity, carefully planned to keep people happily occupied has become a battlefield with stress levels rising for both staff and residents.
People with moderate to severe dementia who may have difficulty communicating their needs and wishes may struggle to participate in the hobbies and activities they previously loved. With good knowledge and history of the person and a little creativity we may be able to find something that is meaningful to them that incorporates elements of the activities they used to enjoy. A person who used to enjoy baking may not be able to follow a recipe or even verbal instructions anymore. They may not have the co-ordination to cut out biscuits or tarts, but they may still enjoy the sensory parts of that hobby. The smell of warming ginger and cinnamon may trigger happy memories, or they may enjoy the feeling of pulling and stretching dough or pastry (even if you do have to throw it away afterwards). Someone who had a physical job such as a carpenter may not be able to use tools anymore in a productive way but may enjoy the tactile experience of touching different wooden objects or tools and reminiscing, or they may enjoy the repetitive motions of polishing, twisting or tapping. Don’t be afraid to try new things, keep it light hearted and use sense of humour when things go wrong. Even if someone can’t communicate verbally, they may easily respond to a jovial expression, laughter, smiles or a reassuring touch.
Once again, the key to successful activities is knowing about the person’s background. So, getting as much information as you can from family and friends about their loved one’s work, hobbies and interests can help you find activities that are meaningful, pleasurable and fun. It’s often the small seemingly insignificant details that make a difference and bring the biggest rewards.