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Dealing with dementia through play

Finding appropriate activities to ease the lives of dementia patients may be as easy as visiting a toy store

Family members and other caregivers often find it difficult to care for a person suffering from dementia, even though many view it as a labour of love.

It can be difficult to find activities that engage the patient as the disease progresses. Without being disrespectful to the person’s age, digging through a forgotten toy box might uncover items that can be used.

“We promote the use of activities rather than toys,” said Charleen Barkman, a staff educator in long-term care in Steinbach, Man.

“We try to provide people with dementia with activities they might have done years ago. We try to get away from childish-looking items, such as puzzles with childish pictures.”

However, she said, a puzzle with large pieces and a picture of a real horse, instead of a cartoon horse, might engage a grandfather who had horses on the farm.

Items that encourage creativity or dexterity may engage a person living with dementia longer and they may provide talking points that could relate to days gone by.

The important consideration is to avoid safety concerns, such as small items that could be ingested or items with sharp edges that could cause injury if thrown.

“We sell a lot of our Clics product to nursing homes,” said Dave Smith, the Canadian distributor of the large, colourful blocks.

He said the blocks are too big to swallow at two inches by two inches, and the edges are rounded. They offer good hand-eye co-ordination to build things or sort by colour, he added.

Often, because toys are designed with children in mind, they already pose fewer hazards from choking, toxicity, or injury.

“Try to find items that kids use, but that are in an adult style,” said Barkman.

Matching games can be good, but instead of matching games with child-like designs, such as one with puppies, look for a game that has more complicated images, such as tractors or cars, she added. Or, provide a pile of socks that need to be sorted.

As well, baby dolls can encourage nurturing skills and comfort.

Dr. Elizabeth Rhynold, a geriatrician with Prairie Mountain Health, said safety should always be a priority.

“Try to avoid little parts, items that look like food and, during flu season, always ensure items are cleaned regularly.”

Over time, the tools may have to be adjusted or how they are used may need to be changed.

For example, the size of the blocks may need to increase or instead of using the blocks to build a barn or a fence, sorting by colour may be a more suitable activity. Using toys familiar to children may help children relate to a grandparent with dementia and create cross-generational sharing.

“Figure out what works and share it with other caregivers or people who are providing respite care,” said Rhynold.

“Learn what the person used to like to do and modify it. Don’t be disappointed if something doesn’t work or doesn’t last. However long a person enjoys an activity, that’s a success.”

Don’t use parenting skills to correct behaviour as you would a toddler. Treat adult dementia patients with respect and offer activities that they may be able to do that are also age appropriate.

“If the person is enjoying the activity and it isn’t creating stress or anxiety and it’s safe, then use it,” said Rhynold.

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