Meaningful Activities and People With Dementia

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When you think about activities for people who have Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, what comes to mind? Maybe you conjure up an image of a group of people doing exercises in their chairs, playing Bingo, or watching Lawrence Welk shows together. While these are indeed ways to provide activities, there are more possibilities out there, and there are several important reasons to provide meaningful activities.

Too often, people with dementia, whether at home, an assisted living or a nursing home, are under-stimulated and unengaged in life. They may half-heartedly page through a magazine that holds no interest for them or have the TV tuned to a program that their caregiver chose.

Meaningful activities—those that engage the person's attention and connect with their interests—are critical in the provision of care for those with dementia. Consider the following nine reasons why it’s important to offer a variety of meaningful activities for people living with dementia:

Mental Stimulation and Cognitive Health

Participating in activities that engage the brain is good for all of us, and all the more so for people who are living with dementia. A review of multiple research studies has suggested that structured activity programs may slow down the progression of Alzheimer's or even improve cognitive functioning for a time. Additionally, research specifically on physical exercise for those diagnosed with dementia has demonstrated improved cognitive functioning.

Physical Activity and General Health

Not surprisingly, activities that involve physical exercise also have benefits for the overall health of someone living with dementia. Remaining physically active can prevent other health problems and help maintain functioning in activities of daily living and mobility. 

Social Interaction

Activities facilitate socialization, an important aspect of mental health. If people don't have the opportunity to interact socially with each other, they can feel lonely, isolated or depressed. This is true, both for people who are intact cognitively and for those who are living with dementia.

Improved Sleep Habits

Activities can provide a routine for the day, which can, in turn, improve sleeping at night. If a loved one sits in a chair all day and does not participate in any type of activity, it's likely she'll fall asleep several times throughout the day. This dozing off can interrupt good sleep patterns since the person received some of their sleep during the daytime naps. Providing activities and ones that engage and have meaning for the individual helps minimize napping during the day and encourage a better night of sleep instead.

Improvement in Self-Esteem

Self-esteem—how people feel about themselves—often takes a beating when someone has Alzheimer's or other dementias. Especially in the early stages when people are aware that they are having memory problems, feelings of incompetence, depression, and anxiety are common. Offering someone an activity to do can be an encouragement to them by giving them something to do by which they can experience success, purpose, and enjoyment.

Decrease Depression and Anxiety

Engaging people with dementia in activities can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Multiple studies have demonstrated an improvement in depression and anxiety through the provision of structured activity programs, and some have even shown that improvement to continue for up to six months after the study was concluded.

Minimize Behavioral Challenges

A study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Society demonstrated a significant decrease in challenging behaviors such as shadowing, repetitive questioning, agitation, and argumentative interactions when activities that were of interest and at the right skill level were offered to people with dementia. Many other studies have shown similar benefits of meaningful activities.

Improve Quality of Life

A research project where people living with dementia were interviewed found that participating in meaningful activities can help increase the quality of life for those living with dementia. 

Caregiver Benefit

If the benefits listed above are not enough to convince you that meaningful activities are important, consider the benefit the caregiver experiences. If your loved one is actively engaged, you will spend less time responding to problematic behaviors and more time enjoying positive interactions with your family member.

A Word From Verywell

Meaningful activities are those that truly engage those participating in them and help them feel a sense of purpose in their day. The power of meaningful activities in dementia is an effective and exciting intervention as we continually seek to improve the quality of care provided to those entrusted to us. 

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Article Sources

  • Gitlin, L., Winter, L., Burke, J., Chernett, N., Dennis, M. and Hauck, W. (2008). Tailored Activities to Manage Neuropsychiatric Behaviors in Persons With Dementia and Reduce Caregiver Burden: A Randomized Pilot Study. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 16(3), pp.229-239.  doi:10.1097/JGP.0b013e318160da72

  • Primary Psychiatry. 2009;16(6):39-47. Psychosocial-Environmental Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease.

  • Wang, H., Xu, W. and Pei, J. (2012). Leisure activities, cognition, and dementia.Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Molecular Basis of Disease, 1822(3), pp.482-491.