Health



April 5, 2010, 1:25 pm

Finding Activities for Parents With Memory Loss

I’ve invited the clinical psychologist Cynthia Green, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and the author of several books on memory (including “Through the Seasons: An Activities Book for Memory Challenged Adults and Caregivers“), to join the conversation today. I’ve been hearing laments about the difficulties of visiting relatives with dementia; people yearn to make that time together enjoyable and meaningful, but they can’t always figure out how to connect. Dr. Green has some thoughtful suggestions.

— Paula Span


When someone we love receives a diagnosis of memory loss, we fall headfirst into the (usually) unasked-for role of manager, overseeing both the major decisions — whether a move is necessary, for example — as well as the minor, everyday ones.

Dr. Cynthia Green. Dr. Cynthia Green

Yet once the dust has settled and we’ve established a routine, we face a different problem. What can Mom or Dad do? How should they spend their time? Shouldn’t they be doing something?

Shouldn’t we be doing something with them?

A friend summed up this aspect of the caregiving dilemma to me and some friends at a recent “girls’ night out,” where she bemoaned the dearth of activities her mother could manage. “She used to love to read, but that’s out — she can’t stay focused,” she explained. “And she really isn’t walking well enough to go out without lots of help. So she just sits there doing nothing. It breaks my heart.”

Finding real activities for elders with memory loss seems daunting, but there are ways we can engage and enrich their daily experiences.

Having things to do provides memory-challenged adults with continued opportunities for communication, feelings of purpose and ways to socialize and find mental stimulation. Research increasingly shows the benefits, both for the older adult and the caregiver. For example, the late Dr. Gene Cohen, who researched aging and creativity, found that caregivers who played a reminiscing game with their loved ones during nursing home visits were significantly more satisfied with the time spent than those whose visits had no such focus. The parents who played the game were happier, too.

The trick is to find activities that are engaging yet doable. Perhaps a parent can’t pursue a hobby in exactly the same way, but with some changes in expectations, he or she could still take pleasure in it. A lifelong cook may not be able to whip together a full dinner, for example, but could mash apples for applesauce. A dedicated reader may no longer have the concentration to focus on a new mystery but could listen to the book on tape.

To find activities that work, I suggest some simple guidelines.

First, what does your parent enjoy? New activities aren’t impossible, but something totally outside his previous interest may be more challenging to get off the ground. You’re unlikely to make a baker out of a man who spent every spare hour on the golf course — but he may get a real kick out of watching golfing videos or teaching his grandson to putt.

Then, find ways to modify hobbies so that they’re accessible. Some activities may now be too complex, but with imagination you can find similar nonverbal, multisensory avenues that still bring satisfaction. If your mom took great pride in her beautiful flower garden, perhaps she can plant small pots of flowers, look with you through garden books (big coffee-table volumes are ideal), or help you mix potpourri to use in sachets.

Keep the activities manageable, but avoid things that are overly simple or insultingly childish.

Plan your approach. Try to pick a quiet time and a place with few distractions to introduce a new activity. Use the “three C’s” approach: Remain calm, consistent and concise when speaking to your loved one, especially if you’re giving directions.

If your relative grows frustrated, try something else. Sing a song, offer a hug or have a snack. Try to figure out what was difficult. Was the activity too complicated? Did it rely too much on conversation? Try it again later.

Finally, keep in mind that such engagement can give us back a common ground, a place to revisit and share past memories and even create new bonds. Mutual activities allow us to go beyond a relationship defined by disease to one where we can simply enjoy one another’s companionship.

If you’ve found effective, engaging ways to spend time with a parent or older relative with dementia, please share them in the comment section.


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About The New Old Age

Thanks to the marvels of medical science, our parents are living longer than ever before. Adults over age 80 are the fastest growing segment of the population, and most will spend years dependent on others for the most basic needs. That burden falls to their baby boomer children, who are flummoxed by the technicalities of eldercare, struggling to balance work and caregiving, and depleting their own retirement savings in the process. In The New Old Age, we explore this unprecedented intergenerational challenge.

Paula Span

While founding blogger Jane Gross is on leave, at work on a book, we'll be posting contributions from Paula Span, author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions,” as well as from other writers. You can reach the editors at newoldage@nytimes.com.

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