Finding Joy and Making Connections in Dementia Care

By Patti LaFleur

A dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis does not mean that love has to stop. In fact, a person living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia can still live a beautiful life full of joy. My Mom and I lived our best lives despite the diagnosis. We did this by focusing on finding ways to connect with each other. We danced, laughed, created, and even traveled.

Creating & Maintaining Connection

As my Mom’s care partner, I was always looking for ways to engage and connect with her. One of the best ways that we were able to connect and maintain our positive relationship was through doing activities together. Through activities, we were able to focus on enjoying our time together. We found connection through art, sensory, and even cooking together.  As her dementia progressed, it was also important that we focused on the process and not the product. It was never about the end result for us, but the connection we were able to share throughout the process.

Artful Connections

My Mom and I often connected by creating art together. I chose to do art with her because she enjoyed crafts and quilting before her dementia diagnosis. It was important for me as her care partner to build on things they loved, and that helped me choose what activities we did together. We created a variety of art projects together. Everything from coloring to holiday crafts (and everything in between). A favorite project for us was to create abstract art together. That may seem overwhelming to create with a loved one, but the beauty of abstract art is that every person has an entry point and there is no “correct” way to do abstract art. 

To create abstract art, or really any art project, I would always start by having all of the materials ready. One of our favorite activities was creating abstract art with a variety of materials.

Here’s how we got started:

  1. Lay out a blank piece of paper, watercolor, paint, various sponges/stamping tools, and glitter.
  2. Have your loved one to paint the paper with their watercolor. (Helpful hint: for painting with watercolor is to pre-wet the paper, and then the watercolor will spread easier across the paper.)
  3. Once your loved one is done painting with watercolor, they can dip the sponges in various acrylic paint colors and dab the paint on the paper. (Examples of sponges or stamping tools to use would be a dish sponge, a sponge cut into shapes, a wine cork, a bottle cap, a Q-tip, or any other shaped item that would make a stamp on the paper.)
  4. Before the paint dries, make sure to sprinkle glitter all over the paper to really make it shine!

Be sure to have your loved one help with every step of the process and encourage them to do as much independently as possible. Encourage them to talk about their painting as they are creating. After they are done, hold up the artwork and ask them what they see. Share ideas of things you see in their painting to encourage them to look for things, too. At the end, you can come up with a title and celebrate their art together! 

Sensory Activities

Another activity that supported my Mom, even as her dementia progressed, was sensory bags. We would often create the sensory bags together and connect through conversations while enjoying the bags. As a loved one’s Alzheimer’s or dementia progresses, it can cause changes in their ability to communicate. Sensory bags allow connection to happen even without words, and senses are an important connection tool. Sensory activities, including sensory bags, can help recall positive memories or emotions by activating the brain through the use of the five senses (touch, smell, hearing, sight, and taste.)

Here are some simple steps to create a sensory bag:

  1. Start with a Ziploc bag or clear plastic bag. Try to use something heavy-duty, like a freezer bag.
  2. Add a liquid or gel. You could use shaving cream, hair gel, a mix of water and cooking oil, goo, paint etc. Be careful not to overfill!
  3. Choose items around the house to put into the bag to create an experience for your loved one. Things with texture and colors are great! These items could include beads, buttons, pom poms, dry pasta, glitter, cereal, small rocks, leaves and more!
  4. Finally, try to squeeze any extra air out and seal the bag!

One of my mom’s favorite bags was when I would draw a shape on the bag and then fill it with clear hair gel, food coloring, glitter, and sequins. She would be able to push the sequins around and mix the colors. I would ask her questions, such as “how does it feel?”, “what colors do you see?” Or “what would happen if we added in…?”. 

A great way to mix things up is to theme your sensory bags. Some theme ideas could be:

  • Holiday themes (Christmas, Halloween, 4th of July, etc.)
  • Nature Themed (include leaves, grass, rocks, flowers, etc.)
  • Under the Sea (blue gel and plastic sea creatures are a fun way to represent the ocean)
  • Seasons (Glittery, snowflakes in winter, or a beach day with sand and shells for the summer!)
  • Color-themed (provide a variety of textures that are themed around a color)

Connecting & Cooking

We would also connect by cooking and baking together. My Mom was always the cook in our family growing up, so it was important that I allowed her to participate as fully as she could. I always thought about what my Mom could still DO as opposed to what she couldn’t do. During her early stages of dementia, she would still help follow the recipe by supporting me in reading the recipe, gathering ingredients, measuring, and mixing together. As her dementia progressed, I would still include her in the process but would set up the ingredients ahead of time for her to mix together. I would have each ingredient pre-measured in different color bowls and ready for her to dump and mix. I would read the recipe out loud, and she would participate by following the steps. Her favorite part was enjoying the “results” together. 

Connection is an important tool in supporting your loved one living with dementia. The person living with dementia may not remember this moment, but they will remember how this makes them feel, and you will have these beautiful memories of connecting together to hold onto. My Mom was not able to identify that I was her daughter or remember my name for the last three years of her life, but she always knew that there was love between us. Connection over everything else. 

About the Author

Patti is a former Kindergarten teacher and former full-time caregiver to her mother, Linda, who had mixed dementia and type 1 diabetes. She lost her dad to dementia as well in 2022. Patti is a friend, dog, mom, and wife. She wears her heart on her sleeve and inspires others by sharing her journey. She and her husband, along with the dogs, live in Auburn, WA.

During her time as a full-time caregiver, Patti’s creativity and love shined as she cared for her mom and filled their days with fun and interaction. Making arts and crafts, cooking, and creating memories in the process. She now volunteers and You can learn more about her caregiving journey by following her on Instagram at @misspatticake.

Read Patti’s story that was published on our blog in February of 2022.

Are you a caregiver? Check out these 10 tips for self-care from our care and support team!

2 thoughts on “Finding Joy and Making Connections in Dementia Care

  1. Patti, you are always so inspiring! Love the ways you were able to make connections to with your mother. It had evolved into pathways you didn’t know it would and you never let it stop you. Thank you for sharing!

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