Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias can turn a social butterfly into an introvert. Older adults with dementia might argue about leaving the house, or resist having friends over for visits. Isolation and loneliness have a negative effect on the brain, so it’s important for family, friends, and caretakers to encourage socialization. Being around others can literally improve symptoms. On this page, we’ll discuss the evidence that social activities (like games) are helpful for problems associated with dementia, and provide tips for how to have fun and encourage growth by spending time with others.
Alzheimer’s disease can devastate a person’s ability to socialize, but being among other people is incredibly important for our loved ones with Alzheimer’s or related dementia. Social interaction is healthy, like exercise for the brain, and can slow symptoms including deteriorating memory. In fact, staying socially engaged with friends and family has been shown to boost self-esteem, which for people with dementia means better eating habits, more exercise, and better sleep.
Think of interaction as a challenge. Your loved one may understandably want to be alone because thinking has become difficult, especially in middle stages of dementia, but getting out and carrying on conversations forces the brain to be active. Someone with dementia might spend time daydreaming, inside their own head, and this internal place can become too comfortable. Being able to transition from inside to outside the mind, from daydreaming to speaking with another person, is an important skill to maintain. Socialization achieves this as well.
Human interaction also grounds a person in the present. Someone with dementia is prone to losing track of time and setting, perhaps not even knowing what’s happening in front of their eyes. Social contact can maintain a sense of reality.
And humans are social creatures! Being with each other to talk and share experiences nurtures the soul. Feeling a sense of belonging is, of course, better than feeling alone.
Alzheimer’s affects someone socially because along with memory loss and other problems, increased anxiety is a common symptom of dementia. Someone who feels anxious is less inclined to be social, and may actually dread interacting with other people. It is important that you, as caretaker, consider the feelings of your loved one as you also encourage socialization. Make being with people as easy as possible.
This is how researchers at Queen’s University, in Canada, put it in their study: “Many AD (Alzheimer’s disease) patients sense that their cognitive impairment isolates them from other people leading to anxiety, depression, societal withdrawal, and decreased self-confidence. Manipulating the social environment around AD patients may help them regain a sense of self-worth and a better attitude towards life. This may improve eating and exercise habits and social interaction, which may result in improved AD prognosis.”
Interacting with people who have dementia can be hardest for friends and family who know them best, and knew what they were like before the disease began showing symptoms. These people often don’t know what to say or how to interact with a loved one who might not even recognize them anymore. To learn more about communicating with people with dementia, or how to help prepare others for socializing with your loved one, see the suggestions below and visit our page on communication.
Like so much else in caregiving, understanding and planning are key. What follows are tips for making socializing easier and beneficial for your loved one.
Living as normally as possible, for as long as possible, is important for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Maintain a social calendar, things like lunch dates or game nights, until your loved one is no longer able.
The Right Time
Plan social visits for the time when your loved one feels best, not when it’s best for the visitor. A common phenomenon for people in mid- to late-stage Alzheimer’s is “sundowning,” or late-day confusion. If your loved one experiences sundowning, don’t have visitors late in the day.
The Right Place
Busy settings full of noise and people are often stressful for someone with dementia. Visits should occur in environments that are calm, quieter, and uncluttered.
Make sure that friends and family have appropriate expectations. Explain the nature of the disease and what changes to expect. Prepare an activity that can be shared during a visit, like singing a song (more on the benefits of music therapy), looking through old photo albums, or taking a walk. This can give your loved one something to focus on. Show your loved one pictures of whomever’s coming to visit, to prepare.
Know How to Interact
Let visitors know they should “go with the flow,” and follow these guidelines:
– Speak softly.
– Talk slowly and avoid quick phrases.
– Be prepared for emotional outbursts, and don’t respond angrily.
– Maintain eye contact
– Identify the person with dementia by name, to let them know when they’re being addressed.
– Prepare to repeat what’s said.
– Use common words or phrases.
– Use props or point to objects, if needed.
– Be prepared for forgetfulness and confusion.
– Look interested in what is being said.
Say Thank You
Remind visitors they remain important and vital to your loved one, even (especially!) as the symptoms of dementia make interactions more difficult. Taking time to visit is always appreciated.
There are actually several fun games that are accessible for people with dementia. Board games and even video games are encouraged for people with dementia, as studies are showing they can help with symptoms like depression and memory loss. For advice on which games are best for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or related illness, see Ways to Have Fun with Someone with Dementia below.
Consider adult day care, where you can take your loved one for a few hours daily, to leave with professionals and fellow seniors for quality time socializing. Keep in mind that unlike residential memory care, which is specifically for people with dementia, adult day care staff may not necessarily be trained to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. Many adult day cares do cater to the needs and abilities of people with dementia (they may be called Alzheimer’s day treatment centers) but be sure to ask about this, and further inquire how socialization is handled among the adults there. Day care may bill in half-day increments. Additionally, transportation services like a bus or shuttle may be available to get to and from the center.
The benefits of finding a good adult day care can be huge for both you and your loved one, as a nice change of pace and as a way to get your loved one interacting with others in a beneficial way. For more on adult day care, including how to pay, click here.
At a certain point, probably in the late stages of the disease, you may need to let the professionals take care of your loved one. Memory care provides full-time supervision and medical care, and staff are specially trained to work on life skills like socialization with people who have Alzheimer’s or other dementia. A memory care facility will feed, bathe, and generally care for your loved one, but should also provide activities throughout the day to keep mind and body as sharp as possible. For more on memory care, including how to pay, click here.
Of course it’s beneficial for someone who has dementia to socialize with others, but what enjoyable activities can they specifically do? As discussed above, singing and listening to music have been shown to help with symptoms, and looking through old photo albums can stimulate memories in specific regions of the brain.
Something even more fun, however, is playing games. As technology advances, people with dementia have a surprising amount of gameplay options.
Easy-to-play video games for the iPad or other types of tablets are becoming more accessible for people who wouldn’t normally be interested in gaming. Evidence-based activities like playing on a tablet can improve executive functions, including organization and planning, for people with dementia.
A video game about cooking, for example, was developed to activate regions of the brain as the player simulates tasks associated with making food. Studies showed that people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease engaged with the game and benefitted from playing.
Other games that help people with dementia include Cognifit, which assesses memory and other thinking skills and then provides simple games to help train those parts of the brain, and Mindmate, which combines games with exercise, videos, and recipes. (More apps that are suitable for people with dementia.)
Video games typically considered suitable for kids or gamers might actually be good for older adults with dementia. Game systems like the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect let players take turns acting out the motions for games like bowling and tennis, and the movements, simplicity, and one-turn-at-a-time gameplay have been demonstrated in studies to increase independence and learning ability for people with cognitive impairment.
It might seem like they would be too difficult for someone with dementia, but board games can actually be helpful for improving thinking skills. One study, in fact, found that regularly playing Bingo improved dementia patients’ scores on naming and recognition tests. Bingo games can be purchased to play at home, and there are even free online Bingo apps for tablets. If your loved one is in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia, it might also be fun to venture to a community Bingo game with other older adults.
There are many other table-top gaming options appropriate for people with dementia. You’ll want to pick something that has colorful boards and pieces, especially larger pieces that are easy to handle and stimulating to the sense of touch. Try checkers, Chutes and Ladders or dominoes. Simple card games like blackjack and war can also be enjoyed by people with dementia. (Large print playing cards are a good idea if your loved one has difficulty seeing.)
Jigsaw puzzles are easy and fun, especially ones with fewer than 500 pieces. You’ll want to make sure no pieces are missing before you begin, so older puzzles might not be a good idea.