23 (Cheap!) Activities for Your Loved One with Alzheimer’s

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Many caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia think that they have to spend a lot of money to occupy their loved one’s daytime hours. Not true. There are inexpensive and effective alternatives.

If you are a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, you have a lot of responsibilities, ranging from cook to nurse to housekeeper to chauffeur, and more. While those tasks aren’t always easy (far from it!), you know how to handle doctors’ appointments and how to assist your loved one with getting ready for bed. Sometimes, it’s actually all the unscheduled time in between that presents one of the biggest challenges! Because many caregivers find the roles of “entertainer” and “social coordinator” to be the most difficult, they tend to shell out quite a bit of money for options like adult day care.

I have found that it’s easier than you think to help your loved one to feel happy and fulfilled at home.

Everyone needs stimulation, as well as to feel that they’re contributing to society and the family — especially a person who is suffering from memory loss. These individuals often appear to be disinterested…but that’s because there’s nothing productive for them to do!

Personal experience
I speak from firsthand knowledge. As a licensed clinical social worker and geriatric care manager, I have more than 26 years of professional and personal experience. I was my mom’s primary caregiver for 16 years after she was diagnosed with dementia.

It’s a sad but true fact that — at some point or another — most of us caregivers are guilty of succumbing to the “Let me do it for you, Honey” syndrome. This is where we stop allowing the person with dementia to participate in activities that we feel will be tiring or difficult for them. (Another name for this is Premature Dependency.) And soon, we’re struggling to occupy all of those unscheduled hours.

The truth is, we all feel better when we have a goal to work toward and when we’re with other people. Caregivers know that, which is why they’re tempted to pay the high costs of day care. All it takes is a little time, patience, compassion, and creativity to bring fulfilling activities into the home.

The most important thing to remember is to keep things simple, fun, and enjoyable — activities that are too challenging can lead to frustration and avoidance. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the generation now in their 70s or older grew up during the Depression and World War II and have a strong work ethic. If your patient falls into this category, he or she is probably very hands-on. So when you’re planning activities, try to include as many of the Six S’s as possible: structure, self-determination, success, stimulation, socialization and security.

Suggested low-cost activities
If you’re strapped for cash and creativity and believe that “good” activities have to be store-bought (and cost an arm and a leg), the following are my favorite low-to-no-cost activities. Most materials you’ll need can be found at garage sales, dollar stores, home centers, and in the backyard:

  1. If your loved one is a handyman (or handywoman!), have him or her sort nuts, bolts, and screws, or organize a toolbox.
  2. Start an herb garden. You can plant seeds in paper cups, then water your plants and watch them grow. (You and your loved one might even end up with some tasty new ingredients!)
  3. Pick up some mosaic tiles or cracked tiles (or buy whole tiles and break them yourself). Use the pieces to decorate garden pots or vases that you already own.
  4. Collect spools of sewing thread and ask your loved one to sort them by color.
  5. Put up a clothesline and allow your loved one to hang damp clothes.
  6. Gather flat stones on your walk and decorate them for the holidays. (Use paint, glitter, or even a Sharpie pen.)
  7. Start a rock garden. Take a walk with your loved one and encourage her to pick up pebbles that look interesting.
  8. Buy some goldfish. Your loved one can count them, watch them swim, and feed them every day.
  9. Pick up paint-by-numbers and coloring books. They’re easy to find at garage sales or at a bookstore’s end-of-season clearance.
  10. Remove buttons from old clothes and sort them by size, color, or the number of holes.
  11. Cut pictures off the front of used greeting cards and paste them in an album. (This is an especially good activity for the winter holidays or around birthdays!) You can frame them, too.
  12. 12. From your old magazines, cut out pictures of interest–or choose a “color of the day” and cut out pictures of things that are that color. These pictures might also be pasted into an album. You might even ask your loved one to ask friends or neighbors for their used magazines–this is a great opportunity for socialization.
  13. Clip and organize coupons. Some people have made a very lucrative hobby out of doing this–you can share them with friends and family.
  14. Paint old golf balls various colors and sort them.
  15. Go to the bank and exchange a ten-dollar bill for smaller bills and change. Ask your loved one to count the money and sort it. You could also ask her to sort coins if you have a loose-change drawer.
  16. Download menus from your favorite restaurants (or pick them up). Ask your loved one to choose a meal–include an appetizer, entrée, dessert, and drink!–and then add up the cost.
  17. Go to a travel agency and pick up some brochures (or download them from the Internet). Look through them with your loved one and plan a “trip” that he would enjoy.
  18. Get bubbles at the dollar store or make your own with liquid soap and water. If necessary, remind your loved one of what she needs to do, and then enjoy a unique outdoor activity!
  19. Play balloon toss. Blow up a balloon and either kick it, hit it with your hands, or pass it to each other.
  20. Make a bean bag (or put rice, sand, or raw oatmeal in a Ziploc bag or sock) and toss it into different-sized containers. (You can use empty bathroom trash baskets or larger Tupperware containers and bowls.)
  21. Show your loved one how to clean, dry, shine, and sort silverware.
  22. Have your loved one place towels in the dryer and fold them once they’re dry.
  23. Your loved one can make homemade napkins by folding sheets of paper towels in half or into quarters.

Recommendations
Before you proceed full-steam ahead with any of these activities, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First, no activity should go on for more than 15 minutes unless it is enjoyable — and if it’s causing distress or boredom, stop immediately! Helping your loved one to stay happy and busy should not be about power struggles. Secondly, choose activities that fit the patient’s interests.

I remember working with a woman who loved to decorate. I picked up some paint swatches and glued them to a posterboard. Then together we walked around mentally redecorating the house. This woman was happy because she was doing something she loved and that she thought was important — plus, it was cheap!

Just keep in mind what materials and actions are involved in the activity you choose. If you’re not sure that the patient can confidently use scissors, you do the cutting and let them do the gluing!

Lastly, it’s important to be careful with your approach. If a patient feels that he is being bullied or forced into doing something, he might become belligerent or refuse — even if he might otherwise enjoy the activity. Instead of saying, “It’s time for your walk,” try saying, “Honey, I love when you come with me on our walks — I feel so much safer when you’re with me. Maybe we can look for some flowers to pick and put them in a vase when we get back home.”

Ultimately, you’ll be surprised by how much enjoyment your loved one — and you — can get out of such simple activities. Be creative and remember that the key is to make the patient feel important, needed, and productive, and not like a burden. There are many happy hours ahead of you!

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Nataly Rubinstein
Nataly Rubinstein is a licensed clinical social worker and a certified geriatric care manager specializing in Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. She is the author of author of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias: The Caregiver's Complete Survival Guide (Two Harbors Press, www.AlzheimersCareConsultants.com). For sixteen years, she was the primary caregiver for her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia. Nataly also worked for several years at the Wien Center at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, FL, which is ranked among the nation's top hospitals for geriatric care by U.S. News & World Report. She is currently working on her Ph.D.

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