More than 447,000 Australians live with dementia and there is currently no cure. Each week there are more than 1,800 new cases of dementia in Australia diagnosed. Almost 1 in 10 Australians over 65 years of age have dementia.

Activity planning for someone with dementia can be a challenge.  Understanding the person with dementia will help. This means knowing the person’s former lifestyle, work history, hobbies, recreational and social interests, past travel experience and significant life events. It is important not to overstimulate the person with dementia. Be selective with outings. Avoid crowds, constant movement and noise, which many people with dementia find overwhelming.

It can be helpful to write out an activities care plan if different people are caring for the person. This will help make sure that the activities are consistent and are suited to the needs of the person with dementia.

Activities can also re-establish old roles and make use of skills that have not been forgotten, such as buttering bread, washing up or watering, sweeping and raking in the garden. These are also ways in which the person with dementia can contribute to the household and feel useful. Encourage them to have something that is their responsibility, no matter how small.

Activities can give relaxation and pleasure. A person with dementia may enjoy an outing, even if they do not remember where they have been. What is important is that the moment is enjoyed, even though the experience may be soon forgotten. Simple and unhurried activities are best. Give them the time and space necessary to allow them to do as much as possible. Focus on one thing at a time. Communicate one instruction at a time. Break down activities into simple, manageable steps.

People with dementia often have difficulty with visual perception and coordination.  Therefore it’s important that activities, such as crafting, are done in an area that’s uncluttered, with few distractions and as little noise as possible. Good lighting (without glare), seating preferences and correct work heights are also important. Use plastic containers to help avoid breakages. Don’t allow activities to reinforce inadequacy or increase stress.

Remember that levels of ability can change from day-to-day. Activities can be adapted and tried another time if they were not successful or enjoyable the first time. Use times that suit the person’s best level of functioning.  To achieve the most success when carrying out activities, consider the times of the day when the person is at their best. For example, sometimes walking is best done in the morning or the early afternoon. For people who become restless later in the day or who have had a particularly long or meaningless day, a late afternoon walk may be better.

Encourage an emotional connection with past activities. For many people with dementia, a sense of movement and rhythm is often retained. Listening to music, dancing, or contact with babies, children or animals provide positive feelings. People with dementia often have excellent memories of past events, and looking through old photos, memorabilia and books can help the person to recall earlier times.  The opportunity to relive treasured moments can be deeply satisfying. If reading skills have deteriorated, make recordings for them. Locate picture books and magazines in the person’s areas of interest.

Consider activities with enjoyable sensory experiences. Some sensory experiences that the person with dementia might like include:

  • enjoying a hand, neck or foot massage
  • brushing their hair
  • smelling fresh flowers
  • using essential oils and fragrances
  • stroking an animal or differently textured materials
  • visiting a herb farm or a flower show
  • rummaging in a box containing things that the person has been interested in.

Activities play a significant part in dealing with challenging behaviours. Knowing what helps to calm or divert a person when they are restless or distressed is very important. This can be particularly helpful for a respite carer. Importantly, don’t give up!  Mistakes and failures will happen but don’t let the person with dementia feel like a failure. Keep trying.

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