Games for people with Alzheimer’s can be low-tech, high-tech, or anything in between. Every care community in the world probably has a Bingo game – and that’s about as low tech as you can get – yet Bingo has been shown to have positive effects when played by Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients.
When I was just beginning my research into Alzheimer’s disease, trying to find out what it was, why it effected a person the way it did, and looking for best-care practices, I came across a study in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementia. The authors reported that playing Bingo provides mental stimulation that is highly therapeutic for people with cognitive disorders. Individuals participating in the study who played Bingo performed significantly better on measures of cognition than participants who did not play. Staff members reported increases in alertness and awareness in the test subjects, and this effect lasted for hours after testing was complete.
Bingo is an ideal game for people with dementia. It is enjoyed everyday by people of all ages, so it certainly is age-appropriate; and it is easy to understand and play, so it is stage-specific for anyone except those in the very last stages of the disease. It requires that the person distinguish and match colors and shapes, so it is beneficial at a cognitive level.
Bingo has other advantages as a game for people who have dementia. It comes not only in the familiar “B-6, N-23” version, but in a number of alternatives that are stimulating on different levels and for different abilities. Players can identify anything from animals to items of food, to body parts. This variation allows for the game to be played, in one version or another, by patients at different stages of the disease, and to stimulate memories, thought process, or other cognitive abilities.
And it’s not just a game for large groups. Games for Alzheimer’s should be played for stimulation, not for competition, and can be enjoyed by a group of two or three. Or even one (with a caregiver). Whenever possible, have children play with the older adults. Both age groups enjoy the stimulation and the social interaction.
At the other extreme…
A computer based game called Smartbrain was shown to affect brain function in people with Alzheimer’s in an adult day care facility in Spain. As reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, Smartbrain, improved cognition in a group of elderly people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Smartbrain provides stimulation to cognitive facilities like attention and memory.
It seems that even the diseased brain retains the ability to make new neurological connections. Since a computer game can be programmed to work on the needs and at the level of the person playing it, this technology holds some promise in the field of dementia care.
The researchers found that, when used in addition to the facility’s regular program, the game “greatly augmented the traditional psychomotor stimulation….” When both treatments were used together the cognitive benefit was extended to 24 weeks.”
Posit Science makes a product similar to the Smartbrain used in the study. Called Brain Fitness, it is being used successfully by several residential facilities in the U.S. to keep brains younger. And Nintendo has gotten into the game with a product called Brain Age. Though originally intended to improve the working of healthy brains, these products are proving to be effective therapy for people with dementia.
Like everything computer, electronic games will not totally replace more conventional ones, but should be considered as an important addition to the patients activity program whenever possible.
Games for People with Alzheimer’s
Games for people with Alzheimer’s disease should work on several levels. A board game with a colorful playing surface and objects that can be handled (cards, dice, etc.) is better than a game that does not contain these features; the more sensory stimulation the better (but be careful with objects that are small enough to be placed in the mouth). Many games involve a physical component. Physical exercise is another element to consider in selecting a game, but don’t choose all your games based on exercise.
And be sure to allow the people in your care to have a say in the selection process. A game that she played with her children when they were growing up, or one that she played as a child will likely hold a special attraction for a woman who’s memory of her past is more vivid than her memory of things more recent. That familiarity with the activity will serve to stimulate memories at the same time that it holds attention.