How to engage dementia residents

Karen Tyrell of Dementia Solutions Inc.


“I work at a seniors’ care home, visiting residents who have dementia. Finding topics of interest to discuss and engaging activities to do can be challenging at times, but recently I’ve tried getting more creative by bringing in items such as puzzles, colouring books and stuffed animals. It seems to be working, but I’m concerned that some of the residents may feel insulted since a lot of these items are toys designed for kids. Do you think it’s a good idea to use these items during visits?”

~ Afraid of Offending


My short answer is ‘Yes’ and before extending any further advice, I’d like to give you a big thumbs up for being proactive and creative, and for taking the initiative to help make your visits more engaging and enjoyable.

The key words you used were the strategy “seems to be working.” The main question in deciding whether to continue doing what you’re doing is “Is this working?” If these items are bringing the residents joy, comfort and calm, and are helping with cognitive stimulation, then you certainly should continue using them.

Let’s take the example of a stuffed animal, a furry toy dog that you bring along with you for a visit. It could be a great conversation starter in terms of discussing subjects such as dog names, breeds or places that the resident may have walked their own dog. Stuffed animals can also serve a therapeutic purpose by having a calming effect and providing tactile stimulation through stroking or patting.

If you’re bringing in an item for the first time and are concerned about the resident’s reaction, make sure to acknowledge that it is a stuffed animal and rather than making it the centre of conversation, use it to guide the conversation towards topics of interest. In the case of a puzzle, if you don’t have a puzzle for adults with you but instead one which is oriented towards kids, use it to direct the conversation towards the topic of the image created by the puzzle, or the puzzle’s colours, etc. Think of the item as a diving board from which to launch the conversation in other directions. A puzzle of Mickey Mouse, for example, could lead to a discussion about trips to Disneyland, while a puzzle of farm animals could result in discussions about growing up on a farm or memories of riding in a tractor.

If you notice that someone seems to be insulted by an item, simply stop, apologize, and attempt a different creative approach. It never hurts to try something new, and at the end of the day as long as you are using tact and treating an individual with genuine kindness and respect, that is the most valuable approach you can use as a caregiver.

Learn more about care and issues affecting families touched by dementia.

Do you have a specific question relating to dementia that you need answered? Please submit your questions by email to: [email protected]

Karen Tyrell CDP, CPCA, is a Dementia Consultant, Educator & Author, and Founder of Personalized Dementia Solutions Inc. Karen offers her expertise on dementia care through speaking engagements, workshops and by working one-on-one with families and caregivers to provide emotional support and practical solutions.

The contents of this column are provided for information purposes only. They are not intended to replace clinical diagnosis or medical advice from a health professional. For any health related issue, always seek medical advice first from a trained medical professional.