Doing laundry is a part of everyday life for most of us. Health care professionals refer to it as an "instrumental activity of daily living" (IADL). At home we fold laundry because it is a job that needs doing, but the task of folding laundry can also be a simple therapeutic activity that an Occupational Therapist might recommend as a functional task as part of an intervention to strengthen arm muscles.
There is a physical benefit associated with the reaching, grasping, lifting and other actions involved in folding laundry. When the laundry basket contains a variety of different items, there is cognitive aspect as the person considers their next selection and chooses it for their own reasons – color, size etc. When we are looking for roles that will enable a resident with Alzheimer's or dementia to contribute to their community, the task of folding laundry is an excellent option and for people with dementia at home, it is just one of many simple tasks that they can help out with.
When I visit recreation staff in long term care homes, I ask about their chore-style programs for their dementia patients. The first answer is always, "Well, our residents fold towels and facecloths". That is an excellent start towards establishing a routine with chore-style programs.
How can it be improved?
There are a couple ways to crank it up a notch. First, we should look at how much is in your laundry basket. Is it overflowing? Ask yourself if it might seem daunting to fold the entire contents of the laundry basket. If so, maybe it's too full. You may have a resident who enjoys the repetitive action of folding laundry and doesn't mind the overflowing basket. If that's the case, it's is a great way to engage that person.
It may not be so good when inviting a resident with dementia to participate for the first time. If there is a large quantity, even if they are easy to fold items, it might be overwhelming and the person may not be inclined to participate – not to mention that it is tedious to do the same thing over and over again. Why not start with a selection of a few items that are easy to fold (a pair of socks, a small t-shirt and a pair of shorts) to ensure that the person can finish the task readily? When they have finished folding those items, thank them for their help and ask if they would like to do some more now or another time. Build on success.
Second, we should look at what you have in your laundry basket. Is it a whole bunch of the same thing or are the laundry items interesting and varied? A significant part of the task is making a choice when selecting the next item to fold and if they're all the same, that opportunity is lost. It's even better if the items generate conversation and reminiscing.
I went to local thrift store for the items in my laundry basket. Some of my finds include:
- toddler sized dress with smocking
- child's t-shirt with a textured applique
- man's plaid flannel shirt
- youth's sports team uniform
- woman's top with a paisley pattern
You might also find some interesting, unclaimed items at the lost and found. Why not make up several small laundry baskets so that you can offer variety and choose the basket most appropriate for the person:
- a couple of items of baby clothes with items from other family members
- pillow cases, guest towels, small table cloth, linen napkins, pretty tea towels
- items with different textures – slippery, lace, rough, fuzzy
- mittens, hats, scarfs, thick socks, long underwear
- hand knit or crocheted items
Folding laundry is just one example of a "chore" and as we said earlier, for people with dementia living at home there are so many tasks for the person to take on as their "role"
- emptying the waste baskets
- shining shoes
- emptying the dishwasher (or just the cutlery rack)
- sweeping the kitchen floor
In long term care it can take a little more creativity to figure out the logistics for chores the dementia residents can help with, but they will benefit when they can engage in this type of program in the late afternoon, when they might otherwise feel anxious.
Chore style activities allow the person to have high self-esteem and allow them to contribute in a meaningful way to their community or home, both key goals of Dr. Montessori's philosophy.