Last updated on August 5, 2021
One of the best ways I’ve found to enhance the quality of life for seniors living with or without dementia is to step up Brain Power activities. You know, activities like word, number, matching, rhyming, guessing, and music games. The kind of games that improve thinking and memory, and give your brain a right good workout!
As Memory Care Director, I’m always on the lookout for fun, simple, inexpensive (free), and easy to do group activities and games. Although the activities themselves are free, some of the equipment and materials are not–at least not in the beginning. But once you purchase what you need, it’s a synch.
Several years back, I wisely invested in a gigantic-size whiteboard because it works best for group activities. It’s a double-sided magnetic 72″ x 40″ sturdy model on wheels because I move it around a lot and use it all the time. Oh, and I got the value pack Expo dry erase markers and a magnetic eraser.
Free Memory Games for Seniors Living with Dementia: Work Those Brain Muscles!
All of the following free memory games for seniors living with dementia require whiteboard/paper, dry erase marker, info specific for each activity, and printed photos/copies of lists. Over the years, I’ve built up a file of info, lists, pictures, and laminate them for repeated use. They are easy to wipe clean and disinfect.
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6 Categories of Free Memory Games for Seniors Living with Dementia
Can You List…
For this activity, you want to list the 50 United States in alphabetical order. To help your seniors remember the task, you can write “List 50 United States” at the top of board/page. Start with the letter “A”, then continue through the alphabet.
I like to write one letter and how many states we need to list. Then list those states and move on to the next letter. For example, A (4). Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas. Sometimes I show a blank USA map. And always give clues to help jog memories. For example, this state is home of the Statue of Liberty or the capital of this state is Tallahassee. Also, if you have pictures of moose crossing the road in Yellowstone or a lighthouse on a Maine beach or the Space Needle in Washington, etc. now’s the perfect time to show them!
During the activity, someone may veer off task to talk about a vacation or work trip they took to the state just named. I’d definitely encourage those conversations and reminiscing moments. Allow people to freely share experiences and memories. As leader, it is your responsibility to create and facilitate safe and respectful environments.
Depending on the level of understanding, interest, ability, and participation, after listing states you might add the abbreviation or capital city or even the state bird. Listing famous people from each state may pique curiosity to learn and talk more, too.
50 United States & Capitals & Famous People
|Alabama – AL – Montgomery
|Louisiana -LA – Baton Rouge
|Ohio – OH – Columbus
|Alaska – AK – Juneau
|Maine – ME – Augusta
|Oklahoma – OK – Oklahoma City
|Arizona – AZ – Phoenix
|Maryland – MD – Annapolis
|Oregon – OR – Salem
|Arkansas – AR – Little Rock
|Massachusetts – MA – Boston
John F. Kennedy
|Pennsylvania – PA – Harrisburg
|California – CA – Sacramento
The “Rock” Johnson
|Michigan – MI – Lansing
|Rhode Island – RI – Providence
|Colorado – CO – Denver
|Minnesota – MN – St. Paul
|South Carolina – SC –Columbia
|Connecticut – CT – Hartford
|Mississippi – MI – Jackson
|South Dakota – SD – Pierre
|Delaware – DE – Dover
|Missouri – MS – Jefferson City
Dick Van Dyke
|Tennessee -TN – Nashville
Lisa Marie Presley
|Florida – FL – Tallahassee
|Montana – MO -Helena
|Texas – TX – Austin
Tommy Lee Jones
|Georgia – GA – Atlanta
Martin Luther King, Jr.
|Nebraska – NE – Lincoln
|Utah – UT – Salt Lake City
|Hawaii – HI – Honolulu
|Nevada – NV – Carson City
|Vermont – VT – Montpelier
|Idaho – ID – Boise
|New Hampshire – NH – Concord
|Virginia – VA – Richmond
|Illinois – IL -Springfield
|New Jersey – NJ – Trenton
|Washington – WA – Olympia
|Indiana – IN – Indianapolis
|New Mexico – NM – Santa Fe
|West Virginia – WV – Charleston
|Iowa – IA – Des Moines
|New York – NY – Albany
|Wisconsin – WI – Madison
|Kansas -KS – Topeka
|North Carolina – NC – Raleigh
|Wyoming – WY – Cheyenne
|Kentucky – KY – Frankfort
|North Dakota – ND – Bismarck
Notice I use famous folks who are older and from my resident’s era so they have a better chance of recognizing and remembering.
Older adults will enjoy this activity if they are not:
- Put on the spot to come up with a name or memory (you should know this, don’t you remember?)
- Asked too many questions
- Pressured to remember specific information (Who were the actors in Pillow Talk?)
- Kept on task to the very end (interruptions or drifting conversations can be quite fun and interesting)
- Timed to do the activity (rushed thinking, sped up to finish, someone is checking the clock)
- Responded to in a negative way if their answers are incorrect (someone says Denver or Denmark for a state that begins with the letter D. They can be thanked for participating and not embarrassed if you just move on).
Can You List Variations
- When listing celebrities, you could ask for any famous people or be more specific–use categories such as singers, actresses, country stars, or comedians.
- Instead of listing states, list world countries free list.
- Show a map of Canada and List 10 provinces: Newfoundland & Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Add a bonus: the 3 territories of Canada are Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.
- List wild/zoo animals or farm animals or pets. Go more specific: List dog breeds—Collie, German Shepherd, Poodle, Lab, Great Dane, etc.
- List cars by brand–BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Honda, and so on.
- Name sports–football, basketball, baseball, tennis, hockey, volleyball, golf, skating, etc.
- List cookie or ice cream flavors.
- List favorite foods. Divide lists into veggies and fruits or sweet and sour.
- List 10 things to take to the beach, on a plane, to school, to work, on a road trip.
2. Matching Games
Matching can be played with practically any kind of topic and pictures—babies, animals, forms of transportation, careers—be sure pictures aren’t too difficult for seniors to spot matches.
First, find free to print color photos on the web and print 2 of each. Glue photos to cardstock (use one solid color so it’ll stand out against the whiteboard and make them all the same size), mix them up and with black marker number them on the back side. I don’t make more than 16 cards-8 matches.
I’ve created sets of babies, zoo animals, vegetables and fruits, famous people, landmarks, sports equipment, modes of transportation, flowers. I rotate them to break up the monotony.
Examples: Baby Matching Game
Zoo Animals Matching Game
With small refrigerator magnets, I put the game up on the whiteboard. Each person is asked to choose a number. I turn the card and leave the photo showing. As the game goes along, I ask if there are any cards showing that match each other–if someone hasn’t already spotted a match. And do this until all cards are matched.
My residents love to hold their matches and look at the photos more closely. Often we have an unplanned reminisce chat in the middle of a game. I love these spur of the moment discussions.
Matching Games Variations
- Play with a smaller set such as 8 cards/4 matches and don’t leave cards showing.
- Create a set with all numbers or all capital letters instead of pictures.
- Create a set of 4 cards for each round. The photos won’t be the same this time, but choose 3 very similar things, such as black cat, Siamese cat, hairless cat and one photo of something different like a piglet. Remember the Sesame Street song “one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong…” When I use this variation, we usually play at least 8 rounds.
Whichever way you play, remember individuals living with dementia need time to choose and think, and get encouragement when mistakes are made. I prefer to use the variation that best fits the abilities of those playing at the time.
3. Name That Tune ~ We Love Music!
The benefits of music for people living with dementia are fantastic! Listening to familiar songs can reduce anxiety, depression, and anger, help maintain language and speech skills, and enhance quality of life.
Name that Tune doesn’t require much prep: You can hum or sing different songs for people to guess. My resident’s favorite version of this game is to bring out the “Music Jar”. This is a non-glass container that is simply decorated and easily recognized as our Music Game. In it are strips of paper with a song title on each. I pull out a title and sing or say the first word or two. They finish the title and usually sing the rest of the song. Sometimes, they’ll take turns picking the next song to guess.
Music Games Variations
- Song titles on paper will have an underlined word in the title that you won’t sing or say. For example, “You are my sunshine” or “Tennessee Waltz”.
- Play an instrumental song list from your phone or computer and let residents say the title and sing along when they recognize it.
- On a piano or guitar, play the first few notes of each song.
- Hum part of a song—the chorus or favorite line.
- Depending on abilities in the group, have residents take turns singing or humming a tune.
- Clap or tap feet to the beat while you hum the first few bars or the chorus.
- Give each resident a simple instrument, such as symbol, hand bell, triangle, guiro, maraca, sleigh bells, tambourine or recorder and have them play the songs as you sing.
**This physical activity and mental stimulation to listen to and follow a rhythm can greatly benefit mood in seniors living with dementia.
4. All Kinds of Words
Rhyming Time! is another fun memory game for seniors living with dementia. Print the alphabet at the top of your whiteboard/paper or cards with black marker. Other colors can be hard to see. Under this write your first word: ALL.
Tell residents we want to think of as many words as we can that rhyme with the word All. To show directions, you can point to the letter B in the alphabet at the top of your board while adding the word ball to the list. Give encouragement and clues.
I keep lists of rhyming words in my file, for example:
AIL: bail, bale, fail, gale, hail, jail, kale, mail, male, nail, pail, rail, sail, sale, tail, tale, vail, vale, veil, wail, whale, avail, flail, frail, quail, scale, shale, snail, stale, trail, exhale, female, detail, inhale, retail, they’ll, blackmail, airmail, curtail….
ALL: awl, ball, bawl, call, doll, fall, gall, hall, haul, mall, maul, pall, Paul, tall, wall, yawl, brawl, crawl, drawl, shawl, small, stall, Nepal, appall, drywall, icefall, oddball, squall, thrall, catcall, downfall, baseball, basketball, cannonball, cholesterol, football…
Other words to rhyme: AIR, END, AT, AN, AND, BOY, COOK, DAY, FUN, GAME, ILL, KIN, LOVE, MILD, OAT, OIL, ON, SIP, YOU, TIME, NOW, UP
- Make up your own poems or rhymes with the words you’ve listed. “A fat cat sat on a flat mat.”
- Tell a funny story using some of the words.
- Draw pictures on the board and have residents guess the word or words.
- A tougher game list would be to ask for words with the same prefix. For example: ANTI: antilock, antibody, antidote, antigens, antifreeze, antibiotic, antiseptic or EN: end, envy, enjoy, enema, enact, endure, engine, entity, enable, enough, enjoy, entire, engage, and so on. My prefix list includes ANTI, DE, DIS, EN, FORE, IL, IN, IM, IR, INTER, MID, MIS, NON, OVER, PRE, RE, SEMI, SUB, SUPER, TRANS, UN, UNDER.
- List words with the same ending, such as ING: bing, ding, king, ling, ping, ring, sing, ting, sleeping, sitting, walking, sewing, knitting, eating, yelling. Other endings: ED, ANT, ILT, ALL, ME, SE, ART.
- Compound words: Write 2 lists of 4 or 5 words at a time; play several rounds. Remind those participating what a compound word is–two words together. Ask them to create compounds from the words you’ve listed.
ball light (Correct answers: ballgame, doghouse, lipstick, moonlight)
Other compound words: lifetime, elsewhere, upside, grandmother, passport, sunflower, sweetheart, rattlesnake, schoolhouse, earthquake, skateboard, grasshopper, scapegoat, something, peppermint, homemade, footprints, airport, honeymoon, dishwasher, toothpaste, popcorn, backpack, supermarket, hometown…
- Hangman is a simple word and guessing game. And a great filler if you have several extra minutes to fill in between meals or breaks. I often use Song titles and musicals for our words.
Songs: By the Light of the Silvery Moon, She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, When the Saints Go Marching In, Ma He’s Making Eyes at Me, I’m Just Wild About Harry, Cuddle Up A Little Closer, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, Give My Regards to Broadway, Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here, Shine On Harvest Moon, I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time…
Musicals: My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I, State Fair, Carousel, Flower Drum Song, Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Singing in the Rain, Fiddler on the Roof, Showboat, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Brigadoon…
- Read Old Expressions and discuss their meanings:
Kick up your heels
That’s my cup of tea
I’ll be there with bells on
Can’t teach an old dog new tricks
Head over heels in love
Bring home the bacon
A little bird told me
Straight from the horse’s mouth
Burning the candle at both ends
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
For a great selection of free idioms click here.
- Crossword and Word Search Puzzles: I like the large print puzzles free collection on Q.E.T.S.
The website has free and fee puzzles. I print and copy the number I need. My residents enjoy the puzzles about family, USA, Sports, and Independence. Generally, this activity is best when done as a group.Free Memory Games for Seniors Living with Dementia
- Word Scrambles: This activity is better for people in the early stages of dementia and or done as a group.
You can find free to prints or create your own simple sheets. Topics could be: Ice cream flavors, Months of the Year, Holidays, animals, foods, sports, etc. I’d stick to simple topics that are familiar. Check out the awesome, free, printable resources at Puzzles.ca.
- Recite Nursery Rhymes: This activity fits into several of the variations above—Fill in the blanks, sing along, rhyming words, recite poems. They challenge minds to remember days long ago and usually end up as a reminiscing activity as well, with lots of laughter. Find rhymes from A to Z here.
5. “About Me”
About Me is an activity that compiles memories in booklet form`. It works best for seniors who don’t have dementia or those in the earliest stage. A great one-on-one activity that asks simple questions about birth, education, family, career, hobbies, special interests, goals, and dreams, and requires written answers. This is a long-term project that is meant to be kept private. You can create printed pages such as My First Day of School, Our Wedding Day, The Family Business, Pets, Best Vacation, and so on with your specific participants in mind. Put pages in a binder for each individual to work on in no particular order or time frame. Each resident can work at their own pace. Plan for quiet or free time and provide comfortable, individual workspaces.
If used as a group activity, you’ll want to tweek it a bit. Take turns asking each person where they were born and make a list on the board–you’ll see where people come from. Ask about education and list answers–how many went to college? Favorite subject? Who earned degrees?, etc. This may connect people who didn’t know the person they sit with at meals was born in the same city or went to the same university.
- Journal: Write daily entries in a notebook. Staff or volunteers may be required to help residents who are not able to write answers. You could also create pages with general, open-ended questions or a prompt sentence to complete.
“Today I went on a Scenic Drive with my friends. We went to_______and saw _______. ”
“My Favorite activity today was: ______. Because__________. ” “In Book Club, we read_____. Reasons I like this story______.”
- Create a Picture Book: Select pictures of babies, children, families, pets, other animals, careers, landmarks, etc. from magazines or internet. Let residents choose the ones they’d like to glue into a book. Or ask families to bring copies of family photos to make a personal book. 10+ photos is sufficient. Label book and photos for each person.
- “Would You Rather…” Can be played on a whiteboard or create a page of Would you rather questions. It’s fun to hear answers when played in a group.
Examples: Would you rather be able to talk to animals or speak foreign languages? Would you rather have more time or more money? Would you rather play at the beach or hike in the mountains? Would you rather eat a banana or a slice of watermelon? Would you rather meet Abraham Lincoln or George Washington?
You can find more free questions at SignUpGenius or make up your own.
- Create Activity Book: Combine above activities—about me page, word searches, a crossword puzzle, word scramble or two, some nursery rhymes, list of fill in the blank senior song titles, a page of words to rhyme, would you rather questions, etc. and to give to each resident in a binder. Put their name on it, so you can gather them up to work on over time. Refill pages as needed to keep the activity alive. People like having items that belong to them.
- Guessing Activity: What Am I? Give 3 clues. You can do this on whiteboard or just ask questions out loud to a group.
a. I’m hot, live in the sky and very bright, but don’t look directly at me. What am I? (Sun)
b. I’m round and go up and down. You can throw me and catch me. What am I? (Ball)
c. I’m new to the world, I cry and sleep a lot. Everyone smiles at me and wants to hold me. What am I? (Baby)
d. I’m green and brown, I’m a house for birds and kids love to climb me. What am I? (Tree)
e. I come in many different colors and I get bigger when I’m full. I float away if you don’t tie me down and make a loud sound if I break. What am I? (Balloon)
f. I come in a pair. You may need to tie and untie me. Don’t go outside without me. What am I? (Shoes)
g. I’m white when dirty and black when clean. What am I? (Blackboard)
h. I’m light as a feather but no one can hold me for long. What am I? (Breath)
And so on…
Free Memory Games for Seniors Living with Dementia: Sudoku and Bingo
Sudoku is a fun game that can stimulate the brain by working out problems and completing puzzles. I’ve found it not suitable for everyone. In fact, it’s usually difficult for older people to understand unless they’ve done sudoku puzzles in the past. I personally love sudoku and do a puzzle every night before going to bed. There are free printable puzzles and solutions here.
You can choose from easy, medium, and hard levels. I’ve printed copies for one-on-one and also put a large game on the whiteboard. Using the board is great for teaching the game to those who’ve never played. And for people who require large print.
Bingo! is a cemented-in-stone-do-not-change-time-or-date activity in my memory care (and probably every other community). Residents love to play for the chocolate bars. We play regular and blackout rounds. When residents are high functioning, we play X or frame bingo. Chips are inexpensive to buy. I don’t use buttons or other items for several reasons: To avoid arguments, feeling different, possible choking hazard. Free to print bingo cards or Buy large print bingo cards.
Brain power activities should be part of a daily routine for seniors. With all the choices and variations of activities listed here, no one will get bored soon. Including YOU, the caregiver! All of the mentioned activities are free memory games for seniors living with dementia. They are easy to plan and fun to play.
Please note: None of these activities should cause stress, embarrassment, or discomfort to anyone. Be aware of and sensitive to each individual’s abilities and interests.
In recent years, studies have found that older adults who keep their brains active most of their lives by reading, writing, completing word searches, crossword and math puzzles, and other mind-stimulating activities on a daily basis have a significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals who challenge their brains daily will have the least amount of the Beta-amyloid protein–a major component of amyloid plaque–and a marker of Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, physical exercise, although absolutely essential for overall health, has no impact on plaque protein uptake in the brain (1).
So, grab a board, a list, gather your seniors around, and work those brain muscles!
For more ideas, see “2 Free Activities for Seniors Living with Dementia”.
Please leave comments or questions below and I’ll get back with you very soon.
- Landau, S.M., Marks, S.M, Mormino, E.C., et al. (2012). Association of lifetime cognitive engagement and low amyloid deposition. Archive of Neurology 69(5)623-629. Doi: 10.1001/archneurol.2011.2748
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