Supporting a person with dementia to keep busy

In the strange pandemic on/off lockdown world we’ve lived in for the past 18 months, maintaining focus on tasks and activities has, for many people, become really difficult. This isn’t a new feeling for many people with dementia, however, who – regardless of COVID – have often reported that starting, maintaining and completing tasks and activities becomes progressively more difficult as their dementia changes their ability to remember how to do things, to concentrate on the task in hand, and find enough time to complete something that may be taking longer than it used to.

This often leads to a person with dementia feeling frustrated and, ultimately, giving up doing things they once completed with ease or hobbies or interests they used to love.

In this blog, I want to share a few of the tips I give in my training and mentoring sessions with social care staff as they look to keep the people they support with dementia busy.


Provide side-by-side support

One of the most valuable things I’ve learnt from my work in learning disability services is the absolute focus on working side-by-side with an individual. In practice this means not taking over and instead being there to help if/when the person needs your help.

It’s probably best summed up in the phrase ‘Just right support’, which means that the person supporting the individual (whether they are a family member or a professional) is there to help the person to succeed and guard against failure, but not to do things for them that they could otherwise do themselves, perhaps with some minimal support.

It’s all about watching and waiting, understanding when to step in and when to step back, which I’ll admit isn’t always easy but a valuable skill for family members and professionals to cultivate.


Adapt to aid independence

Think about how something can be adapted for the person to participate in it as independently as possible. Examples include raised beds and modified tools so a person can be more independent with gardening, and larger print and pictorial guides for task or activity instructions, song lyrics, music sheets or recipes.

Think about getting larger items for arts and crafts if smaller items are proving hard to grip or work with – IE: bigger paint brushes or knitting needles. Opt for big button scales and easier to see items if a person is struggling with eyesight. Voice activated technology – like Alexa – can also be really helpful if a person can be supported to ask for the information they need to do something.

Many disability and dementia charities have online shops which sell assistive items that can help with every day tasks or the enjoyment of popular hobbies so research these options.


Be a motivator

I remember many years ago a man called Mr Motivator coming on the TV encouraging us all to exercise. He was enthusiastic, supportive and, well, motivating. No one was too unfit or overweight for him – he just wanted everyone to love exercising.

Be that motivating person. It’s not about being endlessly enthusiastic, it’s just about gentle encouragement. Being that person who makes it possible for the person to do what they want to do, giving them your time to make things happen for them, and being kind, gracious and compassionate.


Remember: Everything that happens in the day can be an activity

Don’t assume that you need to constantly set up new and exciting activities to enable the person you are supporting with dementia to keep busy. One of the most valuable ways to support a person is with the mundane everyday things that we all take for granted until we are struggling to do them.

It might be making the bed, brewing a cup of tea or peeling the potatoes. It might be tidying up that messy bookcase, sweeping up the fallen leaves, or finding that missing piece of clothing. It might be having a really nice relaxing bath, making a cake or pushing the vacuum around. It might be cleaning the basin, dusting the TV or washing the curtains.

The point is, whether it’s personal care tasks or domestic housework, a person with dementia may have just as much desire to do these things as they have always had but be struggling to remember how to do them or fearful of not being able to do them. There would be little that is more frustrating than being told to sit down and relax while someone else does something in a way that you don’t like (this would be my bugbear!), doesn’t actually do what you wanted done, or tells you that what you feel is really important to do doesn’t matter and, “Don’t worry about it.” Grrrrrr!!!

It may take longer, but helping the person to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it is a huge part of being the very best support that you can be to a person with dementia. It’s exactly what I mean by the side-by-side approach that I mentioned earlier, and it really is absolutely invaluable.


Encourage new experiences

If someone genuinely seems to have fallen out of love with a hobby or interest that they once had, suggest new options. The internet is awash with ideas, from the weird to the wonderful. A great place to start is with Distancing with Dementia, who have lots of ideas, and NAPA. Although NAPA’s materials are primarily aimed at professionals in Activity Organiser roles, many of the ideas they suggest in their monthly calendar (sign up for the latest version here) would work just as well if you’re supporting a person in their own home, either as a family member or a professional.

Until next time…

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
Like D4Dementia on Facebook