Therapeutic Activities

How can therapeutic activities help manage the symptoms of Alzheimer’s?

Planning structured, individualized activities that involve and interest the person with Alzheimer’s may reduce many of the more disturbing behavioral symptoms of AD, such as agitation, anger, frustration, depression, wandering or rummaging. Health professionals who work with Alzheimer’s patients say therapeutic activities should focus on the person’s previous interests, cue the person to old and recent memories and take advantage of the person’s remaining skills while minimizing the impact of skills that may be compromised.

What kinds of therapeutic activities are best?

Successful activities support a person’s sense of self – bringing out their skills, memories and habits – and reinforce the person’s sense of being in a group, which can provide friendship, mutual support and spiritual connectedness.

Any number of activities may be beneficial depending on the individual, and different activities may affect certain symptoms but not others. (For example, music therapy may improve eating in some people but not others.) Any former hobby or interest of the person is a candidate, from gardening, cooking, painting and drawing, to singing, playing musical instruments or listening to music, etc. Routine is essential: Activities that are done regularly, perhaps even at the same time every day if possible, may help establish a routine and increase the person’s sense of stability.

Some of the therapeutic activities that have been shown in rigorous research studies to reduce certain problem behaviors in people with Alzheimer’s are:

  • playing the music of the person’s choosing
  • one-on-one interaction
  • playing videotapes of family members;
  • walking and light exercise
  • pet therapy

Several programs that combine various therapeutic activities have also shown favorable results in people with Alzheimer’s. These include a multifaceted program of music, exercise, crafts and relaxation, and structured sessions combining meditation, relaxation, sensory awareness and guided imagery, so-called mind-over-body techniques designed to calm and soothe.

Where can I learn more about beneficial activities?

Your doctor, nursing staff or social worker should be able to help you determine what types of activities might be best and direct you to community resources that can help. Medical centers or health care service providers that serve Alzheimer’s patients, such as adult care centers or home health care networks, may sponsor programs or know about programs in your area.

One example of a beneficial form of therapy for people with Alzheimer’s is a therapy garden.

Therapeutic gardens specially maintained gardening facilities that help people remain connected with nature, provide benefits for a wide variety of people who are ill or recovering from illness. They are used to help people recovering from surgery in healthcare facilities, for those who are undergoing physical rehabilitation and for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease who are living in special care residences or who are living at home. Research indicates that physical as well as visual access to nature helps people recover from illness quicker, reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. Spending time outside helps a person maintain circadian rhythms (the sleep/wake cycle). There is also natural absorption of vitamin D when exposed to sunlight for brief periods of time, which is essential for maintaining healthy bones.

Access to outdoor environments, in specially designed gardens can be beneficial to the physical, social, psychological and spiritual health of a person. A therapeutic garden can provide exercise to a patient through routine activities such as planting, weeding, walking and bending. Many of the same activities that occur inside a residence can be continued outdoors. For example, having access to a putting green is a good activity for people who have played golf throughout their lives. Adding play equipment to a garden will give visitors something to do with the resident while they visit. These are elements of a garden that help a person stay connected to the world around them. Therefore, everyone who uses the garden will benefit.

Gardening and bird watching are common activities for people of all ages. Watching a brilliant sunset, smelling the fragrance of a lilac tree and listening to the sounds of water cascading in a fountain are all wonderful ways to excite the senses positively. These activities are significant because they help a person remain connected to the world around them. It is essential for a person with Alzheimer’s to be able to continue enjoying outdoor activities they have done throughout their lives. (Note: this outdoor area must be safe and secure.) Often, we do not know how to reach a person with Alzheimer’s disease, and creating environments that support their needs will help us better understand who they are.