Creative Caregiving: Summer Activities for Alzheimer's Patients
August 14, 2002
Making the summer months pleasurable for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers can be a challenge. But with a little planning and creativity, it is possible to enjoy traveling, walking and even sports activities.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
Now that summer is here, outdoor activities for Alzheimer’s patients can be quite therapeutic. “There’s a direct benefit to the human spirit to being outdoors,” says Lynn Noyes, director of the Family Respite Center in Falls Church, Virginia. “When individuals with dementia at our center come back from walks outside, they come back smiling,” she added.
In addition to providing an opportunity for outdoor exercise, the summer atmosphere feeds the senses, and this stimulates the brain, Noyes says. “People come alive during the summer months.”
Adapt summer pursuits to the person’s abilities
Summer activities can run the gamut from brief walks to picnics to cruises. As with any activity, look to the person’s past hobbies or recreational pursuits to determine what he or she would enjoy, says Betty Ransom, director of educational programs for the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “Keep the individual’s likes and dislikes in mind,” she says.
Still, don’t be afraid to try something new because you never know what people are capable of unless you challenge them. “If we’re trying to normalize people with Alzheimer’s, we must bring them into our world,” Noyes says.
Ransom offers the example of a woman with Alzheimer’s, who had always been afraid to enter the water before she had the disease, but learned to swim when she was in the middle stage. “Some people are pliable depending on their personality,” she says.
Once you have an idea of the appropriate activity, adapt it to the person’s abilities. If someone was an avid golfer and can still swing, you might want to set up a short driving range, no longer than 12 feet, where they can drive golf balls into a net. If someone’s physical limitations interfere with engaging a favorite sport, that person might enjoy an afternoon outside watching a baseball game or a tennis match.
Cruises and Music
If you want to leave dry land, set sail on a boat cruise, but make sure the excursion lasts no more than two or three hours and features indoor entertainment, such as games, dancing or a musical revue. If your loved one is a music lover, an outdoor concert could be enjoyable if it showcases music that the individual likes. In such a setting, make sure that the person with Alzheimer’s is not sitting too close to the speakers so that he or she is not startled or overwhelmed by the music. It’s best to sit at the end of a row in case the individual wants to leave before the performance is finished.
Nature Walks and Gardens
Of course, the simpler pleasures should not be overlooked. A 10 or 15 minute walk can work wonders because it is not only good exercise, but also reduces anxiety. The walk could be even more therapeutic if the person interacts with nature, says Jack Carman, whose Medford, New Jersey, architectural firm, Design for Generations, has created several gardens specifically for people with Alzheimer’s. Allow the person to interact with nature in a garden in an enclosed area that permits roaming, he says. “You want the garden to be safe, with opportunities for someone to interact, such as bird feeders or bird baths. Make sure walkways are level and feature nontoxic plants.”
Carman has worked with the Alzheimer’s Association to create public gardens in Portland, Oregon, and Macon, Georgia. The gardens opened to the public in the last year.
Advice for Easy Planning
You can have a successful outing or outdoor activity if you plan well. Even though the activity may be a departure from the typical day of a person with dementia, stick to the rest of the individual’s routine. Have the person eat and take prescribed medicines at the regular time. Remember that behavioral medications can make those with dementia sensitive to the warm weather, so keep water and fresh fruit on hand. “People with Alzheimer’s often will not know if it’s too hot, so you need to coach them to drink fluids,” says Dorothy Seman, clinical coordinator of the Alzheimer’s Family Care Center in Chicago.
The person’s visual spatial perception may be distorted, so he or she may find it difficult to judge whether the ground is uneven in places and so may trip. “You should scan the ground ahead, if you can, before the person walks,” Seman says.
If you are venturing away from home, call ahead and make sure facilities are accessible to people with disabilities. Also, check how far restrooms and parking are from the site of an event or planned activity. You may want to go to an event early when crowds are smaller, Seman says. Perform a trial run of an activity or do it on a smaller scale so that you can identify any potential problems or challenges.
If you are going to take a summer trip by car, it’s best to travel in “chunks.” Build in time for breaks, when you can stop, get out, and stretch in case the travel companion gets restless. If you are staying overnight in a hotel or at a relative’s home, make sure the doors are locked because the person with dementia may have trouble sleeping in an unfamiliar environment and may wander.
Just because your loved one has Alzheimer’s, don’t assume you should limit his or her summer enjoyment. The options are open regarding the types of summer activities you can plan if you take your cues from the person with the disease. “Caregivers should focus on a person’s abilities rather than his or her limitations,” Seman says.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Advances, the newsletter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and is used with permission.