There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for coping with Alzheimer’s, but people who look after loved ones with the condition have a lot of useful tactics for anyone in this difficult situation. We spoke with several Alzheimer’s caregivers who found ways to keep their relatives active and engaged. Here’s what worked for them.
1. Create opportunities for your loved one to participate in activities they’ve always loved and can still do safely.
Emmy G.’s mom, Linda, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years ago. Linda loves to dance, laugh, and draw, so Emmy and other family members try to make sure that Linda gets to do all of those often. “We have never treated her like a ‘patient,’ and I fully believe that is why five years post-diagnosis, she does not act like one,” Emmy tells SELF. “My mom has quite a fabulous personality to this day.”
2. Adapt activities that they enjoy but may not be able to do safely.
Jennifer B.’s husband, Rod, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2017 at age 58. “The activities that bring Rod the most enjoyment now are typically things that he has done most of his life, such as fishing, golfing, and playing [the card game] Euchre,” Jennifer tells SELF. “As the disease has progressed, we’ve made adaptations.” Rod still goes fishing, for example, but never alone, and he attends a golf clinic for people with neurological disorders that’s helped him modify his game based on his physical limitations, Jennifer says.
Overall, Jennifer and Rod talk about his capabilities in three buckets: What he can do, what he needs help with, and what he needs to have her do for him. “Our primary focus is on the first one,” she says.
3. Ask what exciting goals they’d like to accomplish, then help them do so—or, if they offer up hints, take them.
Karen W.’s mother, Ethel, lived with her for a year after developing Alzheimer’s. “She kept saying ‘I want to go to Coronado, [California],’” Karen tells SELF. “That was where she and my dad were married in 1939. So, I took her!”
The pair went on a four-day adventure. “While her disorientation and agitation increased, she was able to engage in much of the trip,” Karen says. The visit also allowed Ethel to connect with her past and share that with Karen. “In the course of the trip, I learned where she lived on Coronado Island before she met my father, visited the chapel where they met and were married, and found relatives I didn’t know I had,” Karen says. “The trip was a blessing to me.”
4. Connect your loved one with others who have Alzheimer’s.
“I am emphatic about this: Get involved with your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and join the association’s online support community, ALZConnected,” Jennifer says. (The organization also has a 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-272-3900.) This allowed Jennifer and Rod safe spaces where they could each process his Alzheimer’s, she explains, adding, “Best of all, we had people with whom we could laugh about the situation.”
Over the past two years, many of these people have become Jennifer and Rod’s friends. “This connection has shown us we are not alone and has offered us some of the best and most practical resources to deal with the day-to-day issues that we face,” she says.
5. Help them exercise whichever cognitive skills seem most intact.
“We look for opportunities for Rod to use the skills that have not been as impacted by the disease,” Jennifer says. “Rod’s communication skills are still excellent, so I suggested to him that he write. He has chronicled a short story about his parents’ love for one another and has started a blog about the ‘sunny side’ of what he has experienced since his diagnosis.” Rod has also found new purpose in life through speaking at Alzheimer’s advocacy and awareness events, she explains.
6. Go for walks together, especially if that’s something your loved one has always enjoyed.
Rick L.’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1997, and Rick eventually went on to write The Successful Caregiver's Guide to share information about what he learned during his caregiving experience. “Dad had always been an avid walker, and I continued this practice with him,” Rick tells SELF. “Walking increased his mobility, strength, and flexibility and, I believe, kept Dad out of a wheelchair.”
Joy J. also took regular walks with her father, who began showing signs of Alzheimer’s in 2009. “Since my father was prone to wandering, the best way to keep him active was to go on walks with him,” Joy, author of The Reluctant Caregiver, tells SELF. “It got him out of the house where he often became antsy and frustrated. The fresh air, sights, and sounds seemed to lift his spirits.”
7. Experiment until you find methods of engagement that resonate the most.
It may take some trial and error to figure out what works for your loved one. “For example, jigsaw puzzles are on many lists of stimulating activities,” Leslie K., whose husband, Tom, has Alzheimer’s, tells SELF. But Tom was never that interested in jigsaw puzzles.
However, he’s always loved to read. “Frequent visits to the library have been an activity that hits several of his hot buttons,” Leslie says. “He’s with others socially [but it] doesn’t require lots of conversation, the library has a constant supply of new books, and he stays cognitively challenged.”
8. Read out loud to them, particularly from material that connects with their past.
Rick’s father, a former college English professor, used to read to him and his sisters before bedtime when they were kids. So, once his dad developed Alzheimer’s, Rick read out loud to help keep him “mentally aware.” “Dad had always appreciated good writing,” he says. “I chose to share work from some of his favorite authors (e.g., Mark Twain and Charles Dickens)—those that he had introduced to me many years earlier.”
9. Consider giving them household chores that are safe and can offer a sense of purpose.
Leslie says she’s shuffled around household chores in order to give her husband tasks that best suit his abilities. “He now has the responsibility of emptying the dishwasher and folding the laundry,” she says. “I’ve bought more cloth napkins so he has a steady supply of things to sort and fold.” Leslie says she’ll take some quiet time here and there to “think through what one-step responsibilities he may appreciate having on his plate that are of value to us and are activities he can feel good about.”
10. Don’t try to force physical or mental activity on your loved one if they’re not up for it.
Karen says there were days on the trip to California when her mom was active and others when she wanted to stay in bed. “I learned to follow her rhythm,” Karen says. “She felt safer that way.”
Overall, Karen says she has learned that she was trying too hard at times to preserve her mom’s pre-Alzheimer’s self. For instance, there was a period when Karen tried to make sure Ethel’s hair and outfit were as put together as always. But one of her mother’s doctors explained that Ethel would be more comfortable if she wasn’t pushed to do as much as she had done or be as put-together as she had been in the past. “It was actually easier on both of us,” Karen says.