Creative ideas for engaging seniors with memory problems, from caregiving expert Patricia Smith.
QUESTION: I am an activity director at an assisted living facility. I have noticed recently that many of our seniors (most are in their late 80s and early 90s) choose not to take part in any of the activities I have planned. These activities include such entertainment as musicians, speakers and local elementary school children who visit regularly. Many of the residents are now experiencing memory failures and this is affecting me. I feel very sad most of the time. But even when I remind them of our time together, they are still choosing not to attend. I’m totally out of ideas for providing care that motivates, energizes and interests them. Do you have any thoughts on this situation that might help me to serve them better? —Katherine
ANSWER: Thank you for the work you are doing, Katherine. Assisting seniors runs the gamut between frustrating and satisfying. There is so much loss attached to aging. This not only includes loss of physical strength and abilities, but also mental capacity. Watching this decline can be very hard on both professional and family caregivers. While what you’re feeling is normal, I do have some ideas that might engage and lift the spirits of elderly clients, family members or friends. Try these.
Present the past. Chances are that your residents once led active, fulfilling lives. Why not have each person prepare a brief presentation about her career or volunteer pursuits? You could help if the task seems daunting to them. If they have historical photographs to share, that would liven up the presentation even more.
Stimulate sharing. You could also have sharing sessions where each senior could share letters, postcards or other communications they are receiving from friends, family or companions. Family caregivers could do a sort of “show and tell,” bringing items to help the elderly family member get a better picture of what’s happening in others’ day-to-day lives.
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Create a newsletter. For the assisted living setting, you could try creating a monthly newsletter together they could send out to friends and family members? You could include information about special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays that were celebrated. Include photographs of any outings or activities. If you have any writers in the group, you could encourage them to contribute a poem or a short story.
Start a discussion group. Select a different subject each week, suggesting they do Internet or library research (if possible) to prepare for the discussion.
Invite furry friends. Perhaps your seniors miss having animal companions. If so, look into hiring a petting zoo to come to your facility. Or engage with the Delta Society Pet Partners (www.deltasociety.org) to find out where therapy and/or service animals are located in your area.
Help them plan. While this next suggestion might seem a little disconcerting, it might prove very helpful. Assist them in preparing their advance directives or any other end-of-life documents they deem important. Often this chore is on the minds of seniors, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and receive the help they need. If you need some tips and suggestions, go to www.starttheconversation.org. If none of the above ideas arouse interest, gather the group and ask what they would like for you to bring into their lives. You might also try the Assisted Living Federation of America (www.alfa.org), a national organization website full of articles, ideas and suggestions for professionals, such as yourself, who are working in the challenging world of assisted living.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.com or Amazon.com.