It ain’t what you do… Top 5 tips for engaging people with dementia in activities

When I deliver activity training to care staff one of the most common issues they tell me about is lack of engagement. They have a programme of activities planned, they deliver the activities and… no one wants to join in, or people fall asleep. There’s no scientific method to getting people to engage with an activity, but at Bright Shadow our success rate is pretty good (you can read more in our evaluation here).

We wanted to share our top tips for helping people living with dementia to engage in activities, because we believe it isn’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it which gets the best results!

  1. Ask people what they would like to do. If you’re doing an activity and someone doesn’t want to join in or if they say they’re bored or not having fun, ask them what they would prefer to do. This can be a difficult thing to answer sometimes so you can ask it in a few different ways. Firstly just ask them what their hobbies are. You can also invite them to join a group and re-write the lyrics to ‘My Favourite Things’ – this is a great way of finding out what people like and dislike. Alternatively, just watch and listen – when they are not in an activity session watch them interact and note what things engage them in their day to day, engage them in general conversation and see what comes out – you might be surprised! From these conversations and observations you can introduce their favourite type of activity, song, artwork or game into your activities and it will encourage that individual to join in.
  2. Background and foreground activities. A lot of people with dementia have sensory impairments or find certain activities difficult to connect with. If you only offer one way of engaging with an activity you will often lose people. This isn’t generally because of the activity, it’s often because of sensory or cognitive impairment. Introduce different levels of engagement and you’ll find that more people stay connected to what you are doing. For instance if you are painting, find music that compliments the theme of the artworks you are wanting to create and play it in the background. If you are doing chair dancing introduce coloured scarves or ribbon sticks so that there is something visually beautiful to watch as well as the physical movement to take part in.
  3. Keep it sensory. Again because sensory impairments are common it is important to try and engage more than one sense at a time. With every activity think about how you can include at least 2 of taste, touch, sound, site and smell. So if you are doing a storytelling activity, can you include some sensory props that can come into the story, or if you are doing a quiz can you include some shandy and a bowl of crisps to give it more of a pub feel and aid reminiscence as well as ‘here and now’ activity.
  4. Visual cues. When your short term memory is impaired it can be hard to orientate yourself. It is easy to forget what is happening and what activity is going on. When this happens the simplest solution for a person with dementia is to go to sleep or to get up and leave. Having images displayed that relate to the activity or the theme is really helpful, decorations and music/ambient sounds can also be a great way of helping participants to orientate themselves within the activity and feel safe to engage more.
  5. Variety is the spice of life. People living with dementia are not often able to concentrate on one thing for a long period of time. Instead of doing one activity for half an hour, try doing shorter activities (10 minutes each) based around a theme (such as the seaside). You can do a number of different activities within 30-45 minute session and by changing the activity from singing to dancing to playing a game, you will find that you hold people’s attention for longer.

These are just some of the techniques that we have been using to engage people living with dementia for the past 8 years. We hope that you find them useful too!

If you’d like more ideas why not buy one of our Bright Boxes resource kits or a workshop booklets. These have everything you need to run a multi-sensory, multi-activity workshop. Visit our online shop to see the full range.

If you’d like to really get stuck in and learn more about how to engage people with dementia in activities, why not book us to come and deliver our Out of the Box Training session for you and your staff. You can read more about our training options here.