No More Tug-of-War: How to Get Dementia Sufferers to Cooperate


It was difficult to watch my mom progress through the various stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Sometimes she was quiet and sedate, and at others she was combative and uncooperative. It didn’t take me long to discover that certain actions, environments, and responses triggered Mom’s agitation. For instance, keeping my voice calm and my expression smiling, even when I felt tense, helped prevent Mom’s anxiety from escalating.

Dementia patients can seem stubborn, obstinate, or lazy. They may appear mean and ornery or like they don’t want to participate in life. But those actions require choice—choices those with dementia struggle to make.

Behavioral changes occur in those with dementia
because the disease process causes brain damage.

People with dementia can’t process information (seeing, hearing, speaking) quickly or the same way they did when they were younger and healthy. They have a desire to express themselves and be engaged, as all humans do. They retain the desire to be productive and relate meaningfully far longer than they have the ability.

It’s important to keep people with dementia engaged and active. There are many reasons to keep loved ones with dementia participating in activities:

  • It gives caregivers a break
  • It can decrease agitation and fear
  • It can decrease wandering, rummaging, and asking repetitive questions
  • It helps those with dementia feel productive

The brain damage from dementia can make it difficult for people

  • to initiate activity.
  • to understand directions.
  • to make choices.

This is because it can take people with dementia up to 60 seconds to process information. This fact is important to remember when gauging simple speech with a loved one living with dementia.

While we can’t changed out loved one’s diagnosis, we can alter the way we relate to them.

Changing how we approach an elder with
dementia can improve their quality of life.

Consider some of the following steps to help make your loved one’s life easier:

  1. Think of the easiest way to explain directions or a process. Break it down into individual steps.
  2. If someone is being uncooperative, try to think from their perspective about what the problem might be.
  3. When possible, modify activities to be easier.
  4. Don’t ask when you can tell. For instance, don’t say, “Do you remember who I am, Dad?” Instead, say, “Hi, Dad. It’s me, Sharon.”
  5. Be sensitive to your tone and facial expression. It’s more important HOW you say something than what you are saying.
  6. If a word upsets them, don’t use it. My mother hated the shower, so I would say, “Come with me, Mom, I need some help,” which I needed. I needed her cooperation.
  7. If someone is frightened, don’t tell them not to be, which doesn’t help. Acknowledge their fear and tell them you will keep them safe and protect them.
  8. DON’T argue and defer to logic. Acknowledge what concerns them (“I know you miss your mother.”) and try to redirect them Let’s wait for her over here. Can you help me fold towels while we wait?”).
  9. People with dementia often respond to the question “Can you help me?”.
  10. Find or create tasks that your elder can help with: sorting laundry, folding towels, vacuuming, dusting, straightening the pantry, setting the table, etc.When possible, have your loved one do tasks with If you’re cooking, as them to chop the eggs (maybe not with a knife) mix the salad ingredients, or snap the green beans.
  11. Give instructions only one step or two at a time.
  12. Set out any items that are needed for a task.
  13. If you are asking your elder to do something, do it with them to demonstrate.
  14. Get them games, puzzles, cards, books, etc. with enlarged and simplified print and visuals. People with dementia seem to be particularly fascinated with children—books with children’s faces, TV shows featuring children, etc.

Recommended activities:

  • sorting silverware
  • dusting
  • looking through photographs
  • coloring
  • walking
  • petting a dog or cat
  • listening to music yard
  • work sorting coins or nuts and bolts
  • washing windows
  • gardening

What have you found helpful? Share it with us here.



101 Things to Do with a Person with Dementia

101 Things to Do with a Person with Dementia


  1. clip coupons
  2. sort laundry/sort coins
  3. count pennies/change
  4. rake leaves
  5. sweep the kitchen/sidewalk/deck
  6. read out loud
  7. bake cookies
  8. look up names in the phone book
  9. read the newspaper out loud
  10. enjoy a visit from a child
  11. listen to music
  12. tend a garden (indoors or outdoors)
  13. look at photographs
  14. toss a ball
  15. color pictures
  16. make simple cards
  17. make lemonade
  18. clear the table
  19. weed the flowers
  20. cook or bake simple recipes
  21. have a spelling bee
  22. sing old songs
  23. play games
  24. string Cheerios to hang outside for birds
  25. create a simple bird feeder
  26. bird watch and identify types of birds
  27. make simple crafts
  28. reminisce about “firsts”
  29. reminisce about travels
  30. reminisce about favorite people
  31. reminisce about favorite events
  32. sort and match socks
  33. roll yarn into a ball
  34. clean and carve a pumpkin
  35. make a floral arrangement
  36. sew sewing cards
  37. knit or crochet
  38. paint
  39. finish Bible quotes or hymns
  40. answer simple trivia questions
  41. trace and cut out leaves
  42. cut out pictures from magazines
  43. make sandwiches
  44. straighten out drawers
  45. sort and straighten closets
  46. decorate placemats
  47. give pedicures or manicures
  48. rub in body lotion
  49. sand wood in simple shapes (making coasters, etc.)
  50. look at pictures in National Geographic
  51. mold with PlayDoh
  52. finish famous sayings
  53. feed the ducks or fish
  54. visit the zoo
  55. visit the museum
  56. take a ride in the car
  57. go for ice cream
  58. make paper butterflies
  59. plant flowers or trees
  60. take flowers to shut-ins
  61. pop corn
  62. name the presidents
  63. write letters to family members and friends
  64. decorate picture frames
  65. make seasonal cards
  66. sort playing cards by color, number, or symbols
  67. make homemade ice cream
  68. dance
  69. exercise
  70. grow Magic Rocks
  71. dust
  72. play horse shoes
  73. have afternoon tea
  74. reminisce about inventions
  75. paint a sheet or a canvas
  76. cut out paper dolls
  77. identify states and capitals
  78. make a family tree
  79. have a cookout
  80. make Valentines
  81. water house plants
  82. play Old Maid
  83. play Go Fish
  84. dress up in silly hats or costumes
  85. watch a classic movie
  86. finger pain
  87. visit an antique store
  88. attend an art exhibit
  89. attend a parade
  90. read or recite poetry
  91. play with bubbles
  92. celebrate birthdays and holidays
  93. browse through colorful catalogs
  94. play with a baby or toddler
  95. listen to audio books
  96. make s’mores
  97. go to children’s movies
  98. color Easter eggs
  99. play with a Wii
  100. visit a farmers’ market
  101. use your imagination!!