If a senior in your family has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, you might find yourself wondering how they are feeling. As the disease impairs their communication skills, it can be tough to assess their emotional well-being. Dementia experts have long believed that people with even advanced Alzheimer’s and dementia can experience sadness and joy. However, there wasn’t any concrete evidence to prove it.

In 2010, a study conducted at the University of Iowa showed how emotions linger after memory fails. Let’s look at the study and how you can spark joy for adults with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

What Research Shows about Alzheimer’s, Emotions, and Memory

The study was comprised of 34 older adults who were split into two groups: a group of adults with Alzheimer’s disease and a group of healthy adults.

Researchers first asked each participant how they were feeling and documented their responses. Once a baseline emotional status was determined, participants were shown eight movie and television scenes considered to be sad. Five minutes after participants were done watching the scenes, researchers asked each participant what they remembered and how they felt. They repeated these questions after 15 minutes and then again 30 minutes later.

After taking a five-minute break, the study resumed.

This time, participants were shown movie and television clips believed to stimulate joy and happiness. Researchers then asked each participant the same sequence of follow-up questions as before.

The study seemed to indicate that even though the participants with Alzheimer’s couldn’t recall what they watched, they did remember how the scenes made them feel. Their memories were gone, but the emotions lingered. Unfortunately, this research suggests that sadness is the emotion that lasts the longest.

While this study was small, it offers preliminary support for the need to create meaningful days and a positive environment for adults with Alzheimer’s. So, what can you do to spark joy for a loved one with dementia? Here are a few ideas you might find helpful.

Creating Happy Days for Adults with Dementia

  • Exercise: Physical activity can help calm anxiety. It also promotes feelings of accomplishment and purpose, especially outdoor activities. Walking is a great option. During colder months, stretching or chair yoga can boost happiness.
  • Music: Music therapy has well-documented therapeutic benefits. Play music from your loved one’s happiest days. If they are able, encourage them to dance or shuffle around a bit with you. They will not only benefit from the activity, but from the memories the music sparks. If you have kids in the house, try to get them to join you!
  • Gardening: This is another life enrichment activity shown to benefit those with Alzheimer’s disease. Get supplies for a stand up or raised garden bed, container garden, or window box. These forms of gardening have a lower risk for falls. A word of caution: use only non-toxic plants in case the older adult ingests them. You might want to quickly review this list of toxic plants.
  • Nature: People don’t always realize what a stressbuster spending time in nature can be. For an adult with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, caring for birds, watching the butterflies, and just relaxing in the sunshine can lift the spirit.
  • Arts and crafts: One of the best parts of enjoying arts and crafts is the variety of ability levels these projects can encompass. From simple activities like putting photos in an album to more detailed ones like watercolor painting, the very process of creating is empowering.
  • Pets: While you might not have time to adopt a dog or cat, a visit to a petting zoo or humane society might give your loved one a chance to enjoy a little pet therapy. Some rescue organizations look for volunteers to spend time with the animals they are trying to rehome. You could make it a weekly outing if your senior loved one is able to safely do so.

Specialized Dementia Care at Heritage

At Heritage Senior Communities, we understand the vital role life enrichment activities play in promoting joy and self-esteem in our residents with dementia. From raised gardening beds to music therapy, residents in our dementia care neighborhoods enjoy specialized programming designed to work with their abilities. Call the Heritage dementia care community nearest you to learn more today!