One of the best ways I’ve found to enhance the quality of life for seniors -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 cognitive processes, encourage healthy social interactions, and more smiles and laughter.
As Memory Care Director, I’m always on the lookout for fun, simple, inexpensive (free), and easy to do group activities. Although the activities themselves are free, some of the equipment and materials are not–at least in the beginning–but once you purchase what you need, it’s a synch.
I wisely invested in a gigantic-size whiteboard because it works best for group activities. I bought the double-sided magnetic 72″ x 40″ sturdy model on wheels because I move it around a lot and use it all the time. Also, got value pack Expo dry erase markers and magnetic eraser. For one-on-one, I prefer up close with paper or pre-made cards (I make my own cards with cardstock and paper cutter).
All of the following free memory activities for seniors 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. I laminate for repeated use. And it’s just that simple!
5 Categories of Free Memory Activities
1. Can You List…
For this activity, we are going 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 always like to write one letter and how many states we need to list, list those states, then move on to the next letter. For example, A (4). Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas. Sometimes I show a blank USA map. And always I give clues (this state is home of the Statue of Liberty or the capital of this state is Tallahassee) to help jog memories. 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 or participation, after listing states you might add the abbreviation or capital city or even 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—from my resident’s era not today’s hot stars—so they have a better chance of recognizing and remembering.
Older adults will enjoy this activity if you don’t
- Put them on the spot to come up with a name or memory (you should know this, don’t you remember?)
- Ask too many questions
- Pressure them to remember specific information (How old were you when you saw Elvis in concert?)
- Try to keep everyone on task to the very end (don’t interrupt or stop drifting conversations, they can be fun and interesting)
- Time the activity (rush thinking, speed up to finish, keep checking the clock)
- Respond in a negative way to wrong answers (someone says Denver or Denmark for a state that begins with the letter D, thank them, tell them great thinking, how about Delaware, and move on)
- When listing celebrities, you could ask for any famous people or be more specific–singers, actresses, country stars, or comedians.
- Instead of listing states, list world countries (there are a ton of these, so come up with as many as possible :D)
- 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
- List cookie or ice cream flavors
- List favorite foods
- List 10 things you’d want to take with you to: the beach, on a plane, to school, to work, on a road trip
2. Matching: Spotting Similarities and Differences
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 24 cards-12 matches.
I’ve created sets of babies, zoo animals, vegetables and fruits, famous people, landmarks, sports equipment, modes of transportation, flowers. Rotate them, it breaks up the monotony.
Example: Baby 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). Do this until all cards are matched.
- 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 to give individuals time to choose and think, and give encouragement when mistakes are made. Older adults need a bit of time to process questions and information. I use the variation that best fits the abilities of those playing.
3. Name That Tune ~ Music, Music, We Love Music!
The benefits of music for people with dementia are phenomenal! 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” (a non-glass container that is simply decorated and easily recognized as our Music game) with strips of paper, 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.
- 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 works fine.
- 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 with dementia.
4. All Kinds of Words
Rhyming Time! is another great activity we love. 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 that rhyme with the word All. Pointing to the letter B in the alphabet at the top of your board, add the word ball. Give encouragement and clues.
I keep lists of rhyming words in my file:
- 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 listed.
- 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.
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…
7. Hangman is a simple word and guessing activity, and a good filler if you have several extra minutes to fill in between meals or breaks. I often use Song titles and musicals.
Songs: By the Light of the Silvery Moon, She’ll Be Coming Round the M0untain, 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…
8. 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
9. Crossword and Word Search Puzzles: I like the large print puzzles free collection on Q.E.T.S (qets.com/index.htm). They have 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.
10. Word Scrambles: This activity is better for people in the early stages of dementia and or done as a group. None of these activities should cause stress, embarrassment, or discomfort to anyone. Be aware and sensitive to each individual’s abilities and interests.
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 resources at https://www.puzzles.ca/word-search/
11. 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 ends up as a reminiscing activity as well.
5. “About Me”:
About Me works best for seniors who don’t have dementia or those in the earliest stage. It’s 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 private. You can create printed pages and put them in a binder. Plan for quiet time and provide comfortable, individual workspaces.
Unless you choose to make it a group activity. Then 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 question or a sentence to complete. Example: “Today I went on a Scenic Drive with my friends. We went to…. and saw…” or “My Favorite activity today was: Because:” or “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. and 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.
- “Would You Rather…” Can be played on whiteboard or create a page of Would you rather questions. Examples: Would you rather be able to talk to animals or speak all foreign languages? Would you 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 slice of watermelon? Would you rather meet Abraham Lincoln or George Washington? You can find more great questions at signupgenius.com/groups/would-you-rather.cfm or make up your own questions.
- 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. 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 way 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 by no one can hold me for long. What am I? (Breath)And so on…
My 2 favorite number activities are 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 residents 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 at Puzzles.ca/sudoku/
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.
Bingo! is a cemented-in-stone-do-not-change-time-or-date activity in my memory care. Residents love to play for the chocolate bars I give out. We play regular and blackout rounds. When residents are high functioning, we do X or frame bingo. Chips are inexpensive to buy, but you can use buttons, macaroni, etc. Download and print your bingo cards for free at https://myfreebingocards.com/numbers/1-75
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, caregiver! 😀
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 seniors around, and work those brain muscles!
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