Tag Archives: treatments for dementia

Can Busy Hands Promote Better Minds?

Researchers in two different parts of the world — India and Finland — have been conducting studies to see if occupational therapy and hands-on hobbies improve quality of life for dementia patients. The group in India studied more male patients. The one in Finland studied women. Both found improved responses among patients who spent time engaged with different hands-on activities.


Considering these two research projects together, it seems that it can be very beneficial to keep dementia patients busy with activities that involve both their minds and their hands. Here is a laymen’s explanation of this work.

The study in India was led by Prakash Kumar and his colleagues. They used a scale developed by the World Health Organization to complete a Quality of Life Assessment among dementia patients. Then they had a group of participants (80.5% male) engage in a structured program of activities that included:

  • Relaxation for 10 minutes which involved alternately tensing and releasing different group of muscles
  • Physical exercises for 10 minutes aimed at maintaining strength, mobility, circulation and general health
  • Personal activities for 15 minutes which included general care of nails, teeth and hair — and  household tasks such as arranging bed sheets, gardening and counting currency.
  •  Cognitive exercise for 20 minutes included reading,  solving picture puzzles, drawing, and clay color activity
  •  Recreational activity for 10 minutes such as viewing television, playing indoor games, table games, quizzes, Chinese checkers, telling stories, singing, and participating in organized social events.

The researchers wanted patients to do activities that stimulated their physical, functional, behavioral, psychological, and cognitive skills. After five weeks in the program — with two 70 minute sessions per week — patients showed significant improvement in physical performance, sleep quality, and energy for activities of daily living. The Quality of Life surveys also showed that patients had a greater appreciation of life and reduced negative feelings like anxiety and depression.

In the Finnish study, Sinikka Hannele Pöllänen and Reetta Marja Hirsimäki, conducted reminiscence sessions with older women in residential care who had severe symptoms of dementia. These same women enjoyed doing crafts as a leisure activity earlier in their lives. The researchers conducted three reminiscence sessions using different kinds of handicrafts to trigger memories and offer stimulation. Activities that combine several different senses (such as smell, touch, and taste) stimulated verbal reactions, better attention and nonverbal communication among the patients. In this group, the most interesting triggers also succeeded in stimulating the recall of forgotten, pleasing experiences related to doing crafts.

Both of these studies help to make the point that it’s important to try to keep loved ones involved in doing things that combine the work of hands and mind. This isn’t always easy — apathy may make them want to give up before they start. It’s also true that when one is busy cleaning the house, cooking, or doing other essential work, it’s hard to find time to organize an activity for someone with dementia. But if you can make the time, it may be worth the effort to get them involved in a hands-on project that stimulates them during the day, and promotes calmer evenings (and better sleep!) for all.

Looking at Dementia with a Different Lens

Early in life, teachers would look at me and say, “Huh? You think what?” I don’t know why my perspective on things seems so odd to other people, but it has helped me find silver linings in the tough process of caring for my mom. Then a recent story about a woman with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) or Early Stage Alzheimer’s helped me see how a patient could also use their unique point of view to help them deal with challenges posed by the disease.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Living Positively with Mild Cognitive Impairment” paints a portrait of Toni Hamilton, a woman who has adopted a valiant approach to her illness. The article describes the ways she has changed her schedule and her expectations of life, so she can deal more calmly with memory problems as they arise. Many of the changes she embraced grew out of her experience in a Cognitive Fitness class where she met other people dealing with the same diagnosis and similar symptoms. From the start, Toni took a pro-active approach to the disease by learning meditation techniques that helped her manage the stress created by her illness (and life, in general). The class also helped her set up a daily routine that includes yoga, brain games, walking, and other healthy habits that may help to forestall the advance of more serious problems. 

In the article, Toni admits that she “wants to know what’s going on….and not be patted on the back by someone saying…’you seem perfectly normal’…” She has also expressed her fear of “not knowing when changes occur.” Though her lifestyle changes have helped her to stay upbeat, she remains afraid that she won’t realize what’s happening if she slips into Alzheimer’s.

The full text of the article, written by Barbara Overholser, appears in InSight, a publication of the Penn Memory Center.  Full disclosure: I sometimes write articles for InSight and the Penn Memory Center. Though I didn’t write the one described here, I had the pleasure of interviewing Toni last summer for a different project. What impressed me most about her was the fact that she seemed to be drinking life’s full cup of happiness in a situation that might knock others into a state of depression. As I see it, this is the true benefit of developing your own, custom-made perspective on life. It’s very hard to ignore the ugly things we know about Alzheimer’s when dealing with the early stages of memory decline. But Tony shows us that it is possible to embrace the good in life even when we feel threatened by what could happen in the future. 

If you are scared about what you see happening to someone you love, read this article and see if Toni’s story offers something to help shift your perspective. In her conversations with me, she said she doesn’t know where she is “on the symptom spectrum” but she doesn’t worry. She used to be an “Olympic quality worrier” but she knows that medically she is in the best hands and she can’t let worry steal her happiness. In my opinion, Toni also provides an example of Olympic quality courage.