13 Things For Dementia Patients To Do With Their Hands

By: Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

Seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease often show agitation or anxiety through fidgety hands. Here are lots of ideas to keep their hands busy, reduce frustration, and improve their over all well-being.

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Seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may show agitation or anxiety through fidgety hands. Signs of this include rubbing or pulling at beddings or clothes, wringing hands, twisting fingers, rubbing hands together, and generally keeping their hands in motion.

Sometimes, they choose activities that are harmful, can cause injury, and decrease their overall quality of life. But, in this article, I hope to give you lots of ideas that improve their over-all well being.

Why Do Dementia Patients Fidget?

If a dementia patient is anxious or stressed, you can usually see it in their hands. They are likely to pull at their clothes, wring their hands, rub their skin, or twist their fingers if they are afraid, upset, or agitated. Fidgeting and associated behaviors are how people with dementia deal with their discomfort.

How Can You Choose Activities for People With Dementia That Are Safe?

Activities are key to keeping a dementia patient’s hands busy to help with the fidgeting, but it isn’t always easy to choose the right ones. Ideally, you should plan activities that the person with dementia enjoys in his/her daily routine.

To ensure that you only choose activities that are safe and help the person enjoy them:

  • Match the activities with the person’s capabilities and cognitive function
  • Pick activities that are fun for all
  • Watch to see whether or not the person becomes frustrated
  • Determine whether the person can do the activity alone or needs help
  • Avoid overstimulating the person – try a new activity for only a few minutes the first time
  • Focus on enjoyment as opposed to achievement
  • If it’s more enjoyable, let the person watch
  • Help the person get started
  • Be careful with small items that can easily be placed in the mouth.

Top Ideas to Help Seniors with Dementia Keep Their Hands Busy

1. Fidget Blankets

People with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease often develop repetitive motions or fidgeting patterns. Unfortunately, while fidgeting can be soothing for some people, it can be distressing and cause anxiety for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

Fidget blankets can be an effective way to restore calm in dementia patients. Fidget blankets, which are also known as sensory mats provide a stimulating and soothing activity for people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

2. Fiddle Boxes/Busy Boards

Fiddle Boxes or busy boards are a similar concept to fidget blankets. A fiddle box is simply a box filled with items that provide a variety of tactile stimulation. Similarly, a busy board is a board filled with items that offer various tactile experiences too.

You can either buy ready-made fiddle boxes or busy boards or you can make your own for the elderly person in your care. When you put together a fiddle box or busy board, you should consider the person’s interests or hobbies.

You don’t even have to spend a fortune making fiddle boxes or busy boards. You can fill the container/board with readily available inexpensive materials.

Gather items is different textures and colors such as:

  • Cloth swatches of various textures
  • Mini stuffed animals
  • Brightly colored plastic springs
  • Little wind-up toys
  • Items with Velcro closures or zippers
  • Old keys on a keyring

3. Hand Muffs

Dementia patients often have restless hands especially if they had been accustomed to performing manual activities such as typing, knitting, or even playing a musical instrument prior to the onset of dementia/Alzheimer’s.

Hand muffs are a type of sensory band, usually a glove or pocket with attachments both inside and out. The attachments are a variety of items the person can fiddle and twiddle with their fingers.

Fiddling and twiddling provide a soothing sensation for those with dementia.

4. Sensory Toys and Activities for Seniors With Dementia

Sensory stimulation challenges the 5 senses in new ways in dementia patients and this can help spark old memories. Sensory activities and toys can help dementia patients recall positive emotions and memories.

Here are some of the sensory toys and products that dementia patients can enjoy:

  • Stroking an animal 
  • Stroking different textured materials
  • Smelling fresh flowers
  • Rubbing a soft fleece blanket
  • Brushing hair
  • Flipping and spinning coins.
  • Dressing and caring for dolls especially in late stages
  • Foot, neck, and hand massage
  • Visiting a flower show or herb farm
  • Using fragrant essential oils
woman with dementia using her hands to knit
Knitting and crafts can help keep hands busy while also providing a reward once completed!

5. Knitting/Crotchet

If the dementia patient used to crotchet or knit, you can consider getting some large gauge hooks or needles along with brightly colored yarn.

Activities such as knitting or crotchet require a good deal of concentration and skill. The person may still find the repetitive activity enjoyable even if they don’t end up making the best scarves.

6. Household Chores / Everyday Activities

You might assume that household chores are tedious, but for dementia patients, they are rewarding. They help the senior gain a sense of accomplishment and independence. In fact, the person may get agitated if you leave them alone to take care or essential household tasks such as laundry.

If so, try finding ways for the dementia patient to help with the following:

  • Folding laundry
  • Organizing paperwork
  • Smoothing crumpled tissue paper
  • Playing with paperclips
  • Shuffling and arranging a deck of cards

The activities above might not always be performed up to your standard by the dementia patient, but he/she will enjoy feeling helpful.

7. Games for Dementia

Simple but fun activities such as games sometimes produce the best results. Not only are such games familiar to your loved one and relatively easy to participate in, but they can help the person feel productive. You probably have several options of games for people with dementia in your closets you can use right now. 

Here are some games you should try playing with the dementia patient:

  • Dominoes
  • Matching game
  • Playing cards
  • Crosswords
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Old board games such as scrabble, and snakes and ladders

8. Puzzles 

Dementia deteriorates the brain, which is why patients need cognitive stimulation to keep the brain active and engaged.

Fortunately, puzzles provide dementia patients with mental stimulation, provide comfort, and could potentially ease some of the symptoms of the disease since they are a wonderful discussion that can be done individually or as a group activity.

Large print puzzle books are available in easier versions that may provide a few minutes of mental stimulation.

senior woman with dementia working a puzzle with her granddaughter

9. Hobbies and Crafts

Activities to keep dementia patients’ hands occupied can include tasks they engaged in prior to the condition. Hobbies such as flower arranging and baking can be enjoyed by the dementia patient and the finished results are something that they can be proud of.

RELATED: Kitchen Safety Tips for Seniors with Dementia

Gardening is another popular activity that a dementia patient can enjoy. You can consider providing specially constructed raised beds that are easier for seniors to work on. Growing their own vegetables can also give dementia patients a sense of achievement. Plus a physical activity lke this helps over all health.

Crafts too can be a great way to keep the hands of dementia patients occupied and provide some creative expression. Simple crafts that guarantee good results are usually ideal for dementia patients such as stacking up party cups, making scrapbooks, matching and sorting picture cards, playing with homemade play dough, etc.

10. Exercise and Outdoor Activities for Dementia

Exercise and outdoor activities can have numerous benefits for people with dementia. They can help improve brain function and thinking skills, regulate their sleep, and can help maintain a positive mood in dementia patients and lower the risk of them developing depression. Physical activities help overall cardiac and breathing health as well.

 Exercise and outdoor activities dementia patients can engage in include:

11. Music and Art Activities for Seniors 

Art and Music are a wonderful way of letting dementia patients explore their creative side through self expression. Such activities can elicit powerful emotional responses and help them reconnect with memories. Nostalgia can be an excellent way to help the person with dementia connect with their past.

Activities to consider include:

  • Knitting
  • Painting pictures of fruits and other common objects
  • Drawing homes they have lived in
  • Adult coloring
  • Reproducing their favorite photo of a loved one
  • Listening to their favorite songs, band, singer, or genre together
  • Creating a Spotify playlist of their favorite genre or artist
  • Explore art museums.
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12.  Social and Emotional Activities

Engaging people with dementia in regular physical, social, and emotional activities is a promising strategy for keeping the condition at bay. The activities you choose should result in lifestyle change and long-term activity participation.

Examples include:

  • Reading with or to them
  • Going on a short outing in nature
  • Baking something or cooking meals together
  • Watching a movie, TV show, or family videos together
  • Sing their favorites songs as a group
  • Go to museums and festivals as a group
  • Make a memory box with other members of the family
  • Have them tell stories or read books out loud 

13. Technological Activities

Technologies such as computers, tablets, and smartphones allow seniors to stay connected with family and friends. Technology allows a person with dementia to create and express himself/herself in a wide range of ways, which include:

  • Using a desktop PC, laptop, or tablet to play screen-based games 
  • Using an easy to use digital camera to capture new memories in the form of photos and/or video
  • Accessing the Internet to search for photos or other resources
  • Using a console to play video games
  • Using a scanner to digitize existing photos or documents.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Do activities matter for a person in the later stages of dementia?

Activities do matter for a person in the later stages of dementia. Thy help keep the person occupied and engaged and allows them to use their energy in a positive way. Activities also help in reducing common but challenging dementia behaviors such as repeated questions, agitation, and anger.

How do you make a dementia patient happy?

If a person with dementia gets suitable surroundings, they can lead productive, satisfying, and most importantly, happy lives for many years after the initial diagnosis. The happier they are the less likely they are to get angry or start exhibiting worrisome behavior.  Here are some effective tips for making a dementia patient happy:

  • Providing emotional support and a relaxed environment
  • Helping the person feel safe and comfortable
  • Spending time talking to them and relaxing with them
  • Adding fun activities
  • Adding meaningful activities

Do dementia patients feel bored?

Yes, just like everyone else, dementia patients may feel bored from time to time. Unfortunately, when they are no longer able to plan their own activities, the boredom may easily turn to frustration. The person may become agitated and start wandering the house, simply because his/her mind has been idle for too long. Activities that will keep dementia patients busy and engaged can help get rid of boredom.

Should dementia patients watch TV?

Watching TV is a popular leisure activity for many people, but it can become a challenge when disturbed by dementia symptoms. It is generally advisable not to allow dementia patients to watch TV unsupervised. However, watching TV with a caregiver or a person close to them can be good for the emotional well-being of the dementia patient.

Is coloring good for dementia patients?

Coloring is a good activity for dementia patients since it shows positive outcomes, most notably a decrease in anxiety and agitation. The therapeutic value of activities like coloring partly comes from the person’s need to concentrate and in participating so that they essentially stop thinking about their troubles while coloring.

Do dementia patients feel lonely?

Dementia patients can still experience emotions such as loneliness. The person may no longer move independently or even hold a conversation but he/she will respond positively to close attention using the eyes for communication or hands for touching and making connections.

Summary

Seniors with dementia need to keep their hands engaged to ensure that they don’t become agitated or frustrated. The best way to do that is by engaging in activities. This resource of activities for seniors in various stages of dementia should be meaningful and appropriate to their manual dexterity and logic processing ability. They should also be simple to accomplish and judgment-free. They should help improve their quality of life not add to their frustration.

Try finding a balance between tactile and cognitive activities since the dementia patient is likely to find them more interesting if both the mind and body are stimulated. Provide lots of verbal communication and written instructions and don’ be afraid to provide a demonstration if necessary. The activity area should also be kept uncluttered, clean, and well-lit.

I hope this article has given you several ideas for activities that a senior you love can do to keep their hands busy. Choose a few activities you think are a good fit based on their illness level and try them out.

Be prepared to make a few notes – this could be a trial and error exercise until you find the best choice you them. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/dementia-activities-and-exercise
  2. https://www.dementia.org.au/about-dementia/i-am-a-carer-family-member-or-friend/activities-for-people-with-dementia
  3. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/adapting-activities-people-alzheimers-disease
  4. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/managing-personality-and-behavior-changes-alzheimers
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2585781/
  6. https://www.scie.org.uk/dementia/living-with-dementia/keeping-active/activity-in-later-stages.asp
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4404928/#:~:text=Conclusion,may%20even%20provide%20quality%20time.
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