In dementia care programming, it’s not about the outcome


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How do you know if an activity or program you’re doing with a loved one or client living with dementia is working? 

You won’t know from the end result. Instead, look to the process itself.

For example, when I was a Dementia Care Director, I often painted with my residents. I’d set up a vase of flowers on the table and have everyone paint what they saw, or ask each person to paint a memory of what their first home looked like. 

While I was always excited to see what the paintings would look like, I focused on how the process was coming along, not on the actual outcome of the activity.

Ask yourself:

  1. Does the person seem to enjoy what we’re doing?
  2. Do they appear to be focused on what’s happening?
  3. Are they smiling? Talking? Looking confident or pleased?

If the answer to all of these is “yes,” then you know this is a good activity.

In the “real world,” I’m very Type A. (Fun fact: we took a test in my college Health Psychology class that tested our Type A/Type B nature. I tested in the 94th percentile of Type A Personality.) I like when things on my to-do list get done quickly, efficiently, and come out perfectly.

You can’t expect the same things when someone has dementia. I did a lot of crafts and cooking with my residents because they loved being involved. I quickly discovered that, if crafts were more than one or two instructions, my residents struggled and got distracted. They also didn’t do too well with “abstract” things, either: I once tried to get everyone to make snow globes, but they didn’t understand what we were doing or why.

The best crafts that I did with my residents involved simple steps or familiar outcomes. Many of them loved to help me bake cookies because this is a task that most people are familiar with. Simple crafts like painting birdhouses, planting in the garden, or creating easy art out of buttons (see my Pinterest) are favorite programs. When we weren’t crafting, tasks like folding and matching socks, organizing lids and jars, or even putting a puzzle together were really popular.

It’s never about the outcome when someone has dementia–it’s all about the process. The desire to feel useful never goes away, and it’s really rewarding to get people living with dementia involved in programs that help them feel like they’ve accomplished something.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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