an old woman looks confused
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My mom has dementia. How can I keep her engaged?

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My mom is in her early 70s and has been diagnosed with advancing Alzheimer’s disease. She is very fit and lives at home with caregivers helping her. She seems very bored with her limited activities and is starting to exhibit undesirable behaviors of aggression and agitation. Do you have any suggestions to make her life more meaningful and less dull? — A.K., Richmond

The majority of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias live at home like your mom. High-quality home care services can be adjusted to people’s specific needs, so they experience respect, belonging, predictability, continuity, safety and security in addition to the physical care provided. While taking care of your mom’s nutrition, medication and personal hygiene needs is essential, it’s equally important that her care go beyond meeting physical needs. Social contact and having a meaningful life are also essential and need to be prioritized by her care team. Researchers have found that boredom and isolation resulting from inactivity can lead to agitation in older adults with dementia. As we well know, the physical is intertwined with the psychosocial, and each influences the other. A holistic approach with your mom may reduce her agitation and anxiety.

Collaboration with your mom’s home care providers to address her social needs will most likely have good results. Involving volunteers from a nonprofit or a health care system could also be beneficial. This comprehensive approach will contribute to your mom being able to live at home for as long as possible: Research has demonstrated that meaningful social engagement slows down physical and cognitive decline.

Tapping into your mom’s unique personality, life history, interests and abilities is key to bringing joy back into her life. It’s well-known that regardless of age or ability, we want to feel like what we do has purpose and value. Part of our psychological happiness and well-being is doing, being, belonging and becoming.

What are some activities that you and others can engage your mom in that would connect her to purpose and meaning in her life? Think about your mom’s abilities and interests and what types of things she may want to do. She may need some prompting to begin an activity, so starting with something she enjoyed earlier in her life might be good.

Here are just a few examples of activities she may be interested in:

You could take her on a themed walk — for example, picking a color and counting how many times you see that color.

If she likes dogs, she could go to a dog park and sit outside the fence to watch the exuberance of the dogs. She could also watch a dog show or a documentary on dogs at home.

She could do a tasting of fruits and vegetables of the season, taking time to savor favorite foods and talk about the different tastes and the memories they bring.

She could participate in making meals by preparing colorful dishes such as fruit salad and doing tasks such as setting the table. Having a meal outside — for example, in a garden — may remind her of picnics she has enjoyed.

If spirituality is important to your mom, she could continue to attend religious services and participate in congregation activities.

If she has enjoyed yoga, tai chi or meditation, making sure that she incorporates these activities into her daily life will enhance her well-being.

Listening to music, singing and dancing are other activities that can be enjoyed at home, even in the later stages of dementia. Listening to familiar music can be calming and of great comfort.

You could also bring someone in to give your mom a hand massage or a manicure. These are social and physical contacts and are good ways of having nonverbal communication.

Other ideas include looking at old photos, doing crossword puzzles, watching movies, gardening, sewing and solitaire.

It is of the utmost importance that your mom feel empowered, that her mind be stimulated, and that she partake in enjoyment and socialization. Being included in the family, society and the general stream of life, regardless of abilities, is what gives us a sense of purpose and makes us feel alive.

Rita Clancy
Rita Clancy

Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay. Have questions about your aging parents? Email [email protected].