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Five engaging activities for older adults with cognitive issues

My daughter will always remember that one interaction.
My mother—her grandmother—had had a stroke and was doing rehab in a senior living community for the cognitive impairments that can accompany a stroke.
While we were talking with my mother, she tipped her cup of tea, the warm liquid running across the table. Seeing it, my mother let out a mild expletive—somewhat uncharacteristic for her. Her face reddened a bit, but then she chuckled, my daughter joining her.
In an initial bout with cognitive issues—or the initial stages of a longer-term condition such as Alzheimer’s disease—older adults can be embarrassed about changing abilities, or even fearful of judgment, uncertain as well over what is to come.
And as the cognitive illness progresses, abilities to engage in ways easily accomplished in the past can decrease.
While this situation can be difficult to watch and may even make it more challenging to connect with loved ones, there are ways you can increase engagement. For example, to encourage a loved one to engage in conversation or participate in an activity, you may simply want to consider adapting how you normally approach the situation.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, it can help to consider your loved one’s form of cognitive issue, best time of day and comfort level. If the person is uncomfortable, currently ill or doesn’t handle a certain time of day well, you should plan activities for a different time.
It also can be helpful to use easy-to-follow plans,  enlarged reading materials and adapted puzzles, if those are of interest. Be sure as well to allow plenty of time to complete activities and respond to conversations.
In addition, here are five possible activities to share with your loved one:
1.    Tend to or plant a garden. Whether indoors or outdoors, a garden can help your loved one feel accomplished at seeing the fruits of his or her labor (no pun intended). Discuss the plants, fruits or vegetables you’d like to grow—and then cut flowers you’ve grown for the table or make a delicious meal with vegetables, bonding over your hard work.
2.    Decorate the home. Does your loved one enjoy fall or another season? If so, make a day out of decorating in the seasonal decor. The activity can encourage your family member or friend to reminisce.
3.    Play music or attend a small concert. If your loved one is having a particularly good day, attend a local musical event or simply play music from a favorite period in the person’s life. Lots of research has shown the value of music for people with cognitive illnesses.
4.    Play games. Was your loved one once a Scrabble pro? Does he or she enjoy Yahtzee? If so, get playing. Remember, though, that you may need to adapt the rules or alter them to make it easier for someone with a cognitive issue to understand forgotten rules. Allow plenty of time and be patient.
5.    Cook a favorite meal or bake a dessert together. The kitchen can often be a favorite place for family activities and memories. Awaken the loved one’s senses with a favorite meal or ask the person to help bake a favorite dessert or similar food item. This activity often can help loved ones with cognitive illnesses to connect with who they once were.
Staff members of Diakon Senior Living Services will be happy to make additional suggestions or provide supportive services.
William Swanger, MA, APR, Fellow PRSA
Senior Vice President
Office of Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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