Q: How can I help someone with dementia stay engaged?


Answer: Care partners of persons living with dementia constantly feel the pressure to keep their loved one socially engaged and in meaningful activities. We know this is good for physical health as well as brain health. Yet, when someone is experiencing memory loss or other cognitive difficulties, it can be a challenge to find activities that create connection and joy, instead of frustration and disinterest.

Part of the trouble is when we try to connect or engage with someone with dementia, the impulse is to draw on the past. When we try to start a conversation, we ask questions with right and wrong answers. When we attempt to do an activity they previously enjoyed, it usually involves a clear sequence of steps that must be followed in the right order (like baking or sewing). In this way, many of our attempts to engage them end up focusing on who the person was rather than accepting and valuing them for who they are right now in the present moment. Unfortunately, these types of activities become difficult for people living with memory loss and can lead to frustration, embarrassment or disinterest.

Creating moments of joy for persons with dementia involves cultivating opportunities for failure-free engagement. It is not about finding “the perfect activity,” but creating an emotionally safe environment that is open to exploration. Not surprisingly, the best “failure-free” activities involve creativity. In the emotional and symbolic arts, there are no wrong answers. There is only imagination through use of sound, movement, words and images. Asking Dad to tell you about his trip to Thailand several years ago will likely cause anger and resentment if he can’t remember. Asking Dad to describe what he thinks Thailand is like or draw a picture of Thailand prompts open-ended conversation and connection. Similarly, asking Sister to name the bird outside the window might create the pressure to “get it right.” Asking Sister to create a sound or song that matches the bird will likely lead to laughter or at least an extra five minutes of conversation in a normally quiet house.

The key ingredient to success in creating and using failure-free activities is you — the care partner. It takes opening ourselves up to being creative and approaching life from a failure-free perspective. This is difficult when so much of society feels performance-based or that we, too, are being evaluated by our caregiving skills or by how our loved one is doing or behaving. Practicing self-compassion and a non-judgmental perspective can help in being a more adaptable care partner.

The other key ingredient is community. Many businesses and programs in Winston-Salem are attempting to be more inclusive and available to individuals with dementia. Some of the ongoing events include the Young @ Heart film series at a/perture Cinema, the Memory Cafés being hosted by Novant Medical Center and Wake Forest Baptist Health, and other artistic and creative events like drumming circles, watercolor art classes, and mindfulness-based programs adapted for individuals with dementia. For more information on these events and the #TogetherInThis movement, contact Alyssa Botte at abotte@wakehealth.edu or 336-716-4683.

One excellent program that embodies the failure-free mantra is TimeSlips. Created specifically for individuals with dementia, TimeSlips is an improvisational storytelling program done in a group setting. It encourages participants to engage in creative play, using imagination to create stories, and creating connection and social experiences with other group members. A new TimeSlips series will be beginning in early March at 18 Springs Community Center led by Temple Crocker, an artist and teacher dedicated to integrating the arts into dementia care and advocacy. For more information or to register, contact Temple at templecrocker@gmail.com or 443-540-3975.

We reached out to Alyssa Botte, MDiv, MA, LCMHCA at the Memory Counseling Program at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center who shared the previous information about keeping someone living with dementia active and engaged.

AgeWise is a weekly column compiled by staff of Senior Services Inc., a nonprofit organization in Winston-Salem. If you have a question, email agewise@seniorservicesinc.org or mail to Senior Services, 2895 Shorefair Drive, Winston-Salem, NC 27105.

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