Elderly dementia patients have a lot in common with children. They can’t always meet all of their own needs. They don’t always get social cues. All they want is time and attention. They need social interaction, but have trouble connecting in a mature way. Often times, the guileless and accepting demeanor of a child is less threatening, and opens the door for a personal connection where adults are shut out.
But it is unreasonable to expect either a child or dementia sufferer to be skilled at beginning a friendship or even a conversation. So here are some engaging activities to aid in beginning a friendship that will be beneficial to both.
It’s important to find the right activity – try to choose something that will engage the interest of both parties and also accounts for their cognitive ability. Board games are one way to connect, and for those (young and old) who are not able to read, there are plenty that do not require reading and still offer a challenge for any age. Try Sequence for Kids, Hi Ho Cheerio, Cooties, Chutes and Ladders, Hoot Owl Hoot, or Busytown. Puzzles of all challenge levels are also a fun activity that both parties can enjoy and participate in.
Physical play is also a good endeavor. For those too advanced to join in, just watching children at play can be engaging and enjoyable. For those with a bit more agility, playing catch, shooting hoops, swinging, going for a nature walk, and dancing are great activities to bond over.
Arts and crafts can be fun for anyone, regardless of skill level, and it can strengthen fine motor skills as well (kids and the elderly need to work to keep those muscles agile). Drawing, coloring, painting, knitting, working with modelling clay, stringing beads, and painting can be done either side by side or together. Finger painting is a great sensory experience for those in more advanced stages of dementia and for very young children. Creating a memory box is a nice way for the pair to reminisce and enjoy connecting as well. Completing a craft together can give both kids and adults a sense of accomplishment, promote socialization, and teach a skill.
Both listening to music and making their own can engage dementia patients and children. They can share their favorites, listen to pieces from their respective eras, play a tune if they have the skill, or just enjoy making noise together (a great way to interact with toddlers if neither partner is irritated by loud sounds). Music also has the ability to reach dementia patients in a way words cannot, especially as the disease progresses – a nice bonus.
Trading stories, doing puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku, trivia, reading the paper and discussing the news…all are great ways to engage people and start a conversation. Take cognitive ability into account, and make sure the younger conversationalist has the maturity to handle whatever confusion or lapses dementia may lead to. Even learning a new skill can help the pair connect, and that can go in both directions. Children and adults each bring value and skills to the friendship and sharing them is good relationship and brain building.
Helping others makes people feel good. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook that a person suffering from dementia still needs to feel valuable and needed. It is also beneficial for children to participate in helping out and to see that at all stages of life people have something to give. Working together to accomplish something meaningful adds a deeper level to the relationship between two people, no matter the age. What they can do will vary depending on age, cognitive and physical ability, and the situation. Some ideas include folding laundry, preparing a meal (or helping a caregiver to do so), organizing toys, watering plants, and taking care of pets.
Having a child (of an appropriate age and maturity) help a person with grooming can be a great bonding experience as well. Simple tasks like brushing and styling hair, painting nails, applying makeup, tying shoes, or doing up buttons on a sweater can make the child feel very needed and it might feel more loving for the person in need of help. Do be certain both parties are comfortable with such close contact, and I would certainly not recommend having a child help with more personal bathing and toileting tasks.
If all else fails, a simple hug or holding hands can be a beneficial experience for a person with dementia. Physical contact is a comfort in many cases.
Every situation is unique, but remember to let each partner participate in activities as they are able and comfortable. Sometimes another functional adult will be needed to guide undertakings and sometimes the child and dementia patient can accomplish things with less supervision. And, of course, consider the safety of both the child and the adult. It can also be helpful to have some conversations with the child beforehand to ease fears and surprises related to the symptoms of dementia. Dementia steals away a person’s memories and social skills, but not their need for people and relationships. Children have a special charm that can break down personal barriers and possibly allow for a meaningful and caring relationship. For those suffering from dementia, that is life changing.