Many articles have been written over the years about choosing gifts for people with dementia. Most focus on “activities of daily living” ideas, such as adaptive clothing, large size clocks and the like. Although they include many creative and thoughtful suggestions and there’s no question that these are important, there’s more to selecting an appropriate gift. In this article we will focus on gifts that can be used to engage the person with dementia in meaningful activity.
Like anything that is worthwhile, it isn’t easy. There are many considerations when selecting a gift and knowing the person is starting point. When selecting a gift for someone with dementia, start by asking yourself - WHO is the person? What are their interests, abilities and needs?
It may seem obvious, but sometimes we forget to consider the person’s interests when choosing a gift. Often, without even thinking about it, we use our own interests instead. For example, when choosing a puzzle for Dad we may select "Black Lab Puppies" because it’s a great image and we love dogs without thinking about the fact that Dad is a cat person. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
Think about the person’s interests, both past and present. A person who never enjoyed playing card games will be less likely to be engaged by a playing card activity than someone who played cards regularly. Similarly, if the person was an avid gardener, then a puzzle of a beautiful garden will likely be very effective (and you may like to try our free Tulip coloring activity).
Sometimes it helps to use an “interests checklist” such as this, because when thinking of interests we tend to focus the things that the person is currently doing, but we may be forgetting about things that they enjoyed in the past that slipped away from them for various reasons. Our Ticked Box series of articles talks about how to find activities for some common interests such as knitting and gardening.
Cognitive ability encompasses a lot of different areas and has a major impact on the overall abilities of the person with dementia. Not only is it helpful to consider the type of dementia and the stage, it is also important to understand which of the six cognitive domains have been affected:
- Complex Attention - the ability to attend to and process multiple stimuli
- Executive Function - the ability to plan, organize and complete tasks and projects
- Learning and Memory -acquiring, manipulating and remembering items, facts, events, people, procedures, skills and so on
- Language - both expression and/or comprehension
- Perceptual – Motor – the identification and manipulation of figures, maps and items, motor tasks and gestures, recognition of faces
- Social Cognition - socially appropriate behaviors and decision making, empathy
When Choosing a Gift...
- Consider the person's interests when selecting the gift
- Make sure that the person will have the necessary ability to use the gift (physical and cognitive)
- Choose a gift that will help improve the person's quality of life
This is an area that is too in-depth for this article but in order to choose an appropriate gift it is important to know which cognitive domains need to be supported and which can be relied on. For example, in Alzheimer’s disease learning and memory is affected so a choice that requires the person to remember something that was just presented to them would likely be inappropriate (such as a game like “Concentration”).
It is also important to consider physical ability when choosing a gift for someone with dementia. We need to be sure that the person will be able to see the materials and that they have the range of motion and dexterity to engage in the task. You are unlikely to be able to engage the person with the gift if they have trouble picking up the tiles or seeing the writing. Often it is possible to adapt the materials or task to enable the person to be successful (such as using larger print or larger, easier to handle pieces), but it is important to anticipate their needs based on your assessment of their abilities.
Because we want the gift we are giving to be meaningful and helpful to the person with dementia, the final area that we want to consider are the person’s needs. If the person is already getting a lot physical stimulation, for example, then our gift will probably be more helpful if it provides stimulation in other areas. The basic goal we are trying to achieve for the person is quality of life, wellness and balance and we want our gift to help in one (or more) of these areas. These are commonly referred to as Body, Mind and Spirit.
Gifts for the Body
Keeping the body healthy is an important part of dementia care and one that can become difficult over time. Finding ways to stimulate the senses is one aspect that is important and keeping the body moving is another. Here are some gift suggestions to help with both.
Although everyone can benefit from sensory stimulation, people in later stages of dementia often have limited cognitive and physical abilities which makes it difficult to engage them. We can (and should) keep this in mind in all our interactions with the person. When choosing a gift to provide sensory stimulation, we should consider all of the senses. Things as simple as CD’s of relaxing music or nature sounds that can be played in the background, or more involved such as aromatherapy, massage, Twiddles or Snoezelen type materials.
Gifts that can help the person be more independent will allow the person to have more self-esteem and generally be more content. Assistive devices such as large button TV remote controls, schedule boards to allow them to keep track of appointments, large size clocks, easy to use telephones all fall into this category and can make an ideal gift.
Because people with dementia often don’t have the ability to initiate activity, they often sit with their hands in their lap for long periods of time. This can lead to the loss of abilities unrelated to the dementia and is known as excess disability. Gifts that encourage movement help prevent this. Things that keep their fingers and hands moving such as manipulating clothespins or sorting playing cards are good examples. For people in later stage Twiddles provide a positive, engaging experience.
Gifts for the Mind
Keeping the mind active and involved is an important aspect of dementia care and it is an area where well-chosen gifts can make a big difference. Activities that relate to past interests or skills make the best gifts because they are meaningful and familiar to the person. The activity should provide the necessary guidance, or sequencing, to help the person complete it by themselves so that they gain the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.
It is difficult to find age-appropriate activities that are suitable for people with dementia. Many are children’s activities and many are too difficult for the person to be successful on their own. This is the very reason that we started Keeping Busy. We couldn’t find appropriate activities that supported the training that we were providing to dementia caregivers so we decided to develop them ourselves.
Choose a gift that gives them back the pastimes that gave them pleasure and filled their leisure time in the past. It is best if the selected gift
- Allows the person to work on the activity in their own time
- Lets them feel free to do it in their own way with no pressure to perform in a specific way – if they want to stack the tiles instead of sorting them, that’s great
- Most importantly, lets them be the one doing the activity, not watching as someone else does it for them.
If the person enjoy jigsaw puzzles there are many options, which are presented here in order of increasing challenge:
- Computer or tablet apps – there are some good puzzle apps available, but the person must be able to see the image on the screen and be comfortable enough with the technology to be able to move the pieces on the screen
- Strip puzzles – an image cut into strips with a sequential number at the bottom of each strip – the strips can be aligned using the number or by matching the image
- Tangram – an ancient Chinese puzzle with seven wooden pieces and templates to guide the person. Also provides an excellent creative activity by encouraging the person to arrange the pieces in their own way.
- 35 Piece Sequenced Jigsaw Puzzles – our unique color coded “sequencing” allows the person to start simply and build up as they become more familiar with the activity. A great way to help someone get back into doing puzzles after they have become too frustrating.
- 60 Piece Jigsaw Puzzles – more challenging than the 35 piece puzzles, but still achievable because of the color sequencing.
Word puzzles are a popular pastime and can make a great gift. The problem is, most puzzles are too difficult for a person with dementia to be successful and therefor lead to frustration. Our word puzzles are designed specifically for people with dementia and offer ways to help the person be successful. If the person used to enjoy word puzzles but have stopped doing them, these choices can help them get interested again:
- Word Search – Our word searches have no words that run backwards or diagonally. The print is large, the words simple and the grid size small. They come in three levels of difficulty to meet the abilities of almost anyone. This article offers some tips on presenting word search puzzles.
- Sequenced Crossword Puzzles – Our unique Sequenced Crossword Puzzles offer the crossword lover lots of help to be successful. Depending on their ability, you can choose from the various cuing options included to help guide them to be successful
- Expressions Games – We offer two versions, Rhyming Expressions and Expressions. Expressions takes advantage of procedural memory, which helps the person come up with the answer automatically (“hip, hip, ________”) while Rhyming Expressions offers more of a cognitive challenge
- Other word puzzles gift ideas include “Best Guess – Trivia Game for Dementia” iPad app or Scrabble (not necessarily to play the game, but rather to use the tiles to spell words).
If the person enjoyed playing games, there are lots of suitable gift ideas. The important point to remember is that whatever you choose, be sure to introduce the game in a way that allows them to become familiar with it before launching into a game that requires strategy. Look for ways to modify the game so that it relies on luck rather than strategy.
- Board Games – Dig up some of the games the they enjoyed in the past to offer as a gift. Some common choices include Trouble, Parcheese, Snakes and Ladders, Scrabble and dominoes. Newer games such as Connect 4 and Qwirkle can also make good gift choices.
- Other Games - If the person was a card player, our Match the Suits activity is a good way to reintroduce the cards and suits and can lead to playing simple card games can make a good choice. Similarly, Match the Dots can be used to reintroduce dominoes or Match the Shapes to introduce Qwirkle.
Gifts for the Spirit
Gifts for the spirit help the person be more alert, less anxious and better able to communicate. They help the person be in a better mood. We have divided Gifts for the Spirit into three categories.
Everyone benefits from social interaction and it is no different for someone with dementia. Spending time with the person is a special gift, particularly when you put their needs ahead of your best intentions. You may have a great plan for how you’re going to spend your time together (play a game, read a book together, for example), but you have to be prepared to change those plans based on the person’s needs at the time of your visit. Take your cue from them, and adapt accordingly. This article tells a story about “approaching the person with purposeful compassion and dignity”.
Appreciating the Arts
Music and art enriches the lives of people with dementia, just as they do everyone. They offer the opportunity for self-expression and engagement, as well as helping improve mood and communication.
Studies show that music can reduce agitation and improve behavioral issues. The “Music and Memory” program and “Alive Inside” have popularized the concept and there have been a lot of studies that prove the benefits. You can provide the gift of music in many ways – take the person to concerts featuring music that they enjoy, watch musicals on DVD, or play a CD together. Probably the most effective way to provide the gift of music is to load an iPod with their favorite songs. As with any choice of gift, it is important that you choose music that they like, not what you like.
Viewing and appreciating art is something that is of benefit to us all. Many art galleries have “art and dementia” programs which offer people with dementia and their caregivers the opportunity to visit the gallery at a time when it is not crowded and the experience can be enjoyed fully. If galleries near you don’t have one, perhaps you get help get one organized and give the gift of art to even more people with dementia.
Art can also be enjoyed by visiting galleries on your own or with picture books featuring beautiful images or famous paintings.
Instead of just enjoying looking at art, activities that allow the person to participate in creating art take it to a different level. Several studies have shown that people with dementia involved in creative art programs became calmer and more social than those who not involved. Art activities come in many forms such as adult coloring books (with simple images), connecting with a hobby from the past such as woodworking or knitting, or even iPad apps such as pottery, pond, musical paint, kaleidoscope. Our WaterDoodle water doodling activity is a magical way to help someone be creative.
While most of the products in our store can make wonderful gifts when chosen carefully for the intended recipient, we have created a list of Gift Suggestions that are particularly appropriate.