Brain-Stimulating Benefits of Puzzles for Seniors with Dementia

Check out this amazing puzzle that the residents at Chesapeake Cottage just completed! We always try engaging our residents in meaningful activities that not only bring them joy, but also promote greater cognitive functioning. Continue reading to learn about all of the wonderful benefits puzzles can provide to seniors with dementia.

For seniors living with the challenges of dementia and memory loss, it can be difficult to find activities that help them feel productive, capable and relaxed. Many caregivers of a loved one with dementia struggle to engage them in meaningful pastimes to curb their restlessness or stimulate their mind. One simple solution to engaging seniors with dementia is to immerse them in fun activities that include just the right amount of puzzling stimulation.

“Puzzles are excellent activities for seniors at any stage of dementia,” says Rob Low, Community Relations Director at Clarity Pointe™ Pensacola, a memory care community in Pensacola, Florida. “While crossword puzzles or riddles are more appropriate for those in the earlier stages of the disease, colorful jigsaw puzzles are versatile and can offer great benefits even into the later stages.

“Seniors living with Alzheimer’s need to participate in various activities that stimulate cognitive functioning. Puzzles not only get the brain working, but allow for social opportunities between loved ones and caregivers and positive emotional connections.”

If you’re a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, read on to learn how puzzles can piece together a picture of cognitive wellness!

Brain Benefits of Completing Puzzles

It’s easy to understand why working on puzzles is good for a healthy brain. From stimulating concentration to strengthening short-term memory, the benefits of puzzles combine to help us reduce our risk of dementia. Solving puzzles improves our spatial, visual, and cognitive abilities, using the entire brain to find solutions.

Including puzzles as part of a care routine for someone who has already developed memory loss also has remarkable benefits for the mind and spirit. These enjoyable activities can improve brain function and stir pleasant memories from childhood. Research even shows that, among the benefits of doing puzzles, seniors with dementia can even decrease their rate of cognitive decline. Others include:

  • Slower decline of cognitive functioning – In a review of several studies, researchers found that seniors with memory loss who worked on puzzles for 45 minutes two times a week had improved scores on memory tests. These improvements accounted for approximately six to nine months delay in symptoms or decline.

  • Powerful brain workout – Working on a puzzle exercises both sides of the brain, creating a stimulating workout. While the right side of the brain focuses on creativity and intuitive thought, the left side is busy with logic and order. Puzzles combine these functions for full-brain involvement, which can result in greater problem-solving skills, faster processing time and better judgment.

  • Increased visual perception and memory – When you put together a jigsaw puzzle, your eyes are constantly scanning for a piece that matches a specific shape or color. This not only improves visual recognition (which often declines with dementia), but strengthens your short-term memory as well. Even word puzzles reinforce our memory to strengthen connections between brain cells and build new relationships between subjects.

  • Improved interactions with others – Puzzles can be easily be a solo activity, but they’re also fun to do with others. Seniors with memory loss often have trouble interacting with those around them, especially as their symptoms progress. Spending time together with a puzzle creates opportunities for easy conversation, collaboration, shared accomplishments and bonding. For someone who is non-verbal, completing a visual puzzle gives them a unique chance for connection.

  • Therapeutic meditation – Activities that exercise both sides of the brain encourage a mental state that allows for meditation. This state lets us feel calm and content. Working on a puzzle can benefit those with dementia by calming them down if they’re agitated or restless. Puzzles require concentration, which can help loved ones relax and alter their mood.

  • Better physical health – When our minds can relax and meditate, it’s good for our physical health, too. Calming activities like jigsaw puzzles can lower the breathing rate, slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.

  • Feel-good chemicals – Completing a task, such as solving one piece or an entire puzzle, releases dopamine in the brain. This chemical makes us feel good. We feel the effects of dopamine when we accomplish a goal, complete a project or solve a problem. Dopamine also has the added benefits of improving motor skills, concentration, optimism, confidence and recollection – all beneficial to those with memory loss!

  • Purposeful activities – For people with dementia, feeling a sense of accomplishment can be rare. Their disease may limit them from doing the kinds of tasks they used to do with ease. A simple project, such as finishing a puzzle, can give them a big boost in pride and sense of purpose.

Considerations for Puzzle Activities

Although puzzles may seem like fairly straightforward activities, you still need to put in some thought if you want your loved one with dementia to benefit. Consider a few things before you invite them to work on a puzzle:

  • Choose the puzzle wisely. Stay away from children’s puzzles that are too easy and center on childish themes. At the same time, you should also avoid games that are so complex your loved one will feel frustrated and hopeless. Find a puzzle that’s challenging but not impossible.

  • As your loved one’s memory loss progresses, puzzles may become more and more difficult to complete. Simple puzzles are appropriate for late-stage dementia. (Puzzles made specifically for people with dementia are available that include low piece counts and adult-appropriate images.)

  • If your loved one has arthritis or has trouble picking up small pieces, take this into consideration when thinking about starting a jigsaw puzzle.

  • Pick a puzzle that has a pleasant picture, or may evoke memories for your loved one. The picture that they work to complete will keep their minds occupied while they work. You can even order a custom puzzle online with your own photographs.

  • Set up the puzzle station in a place that has plenty of light. It should also be a place where your loved one can sit comfortably and won’t need the space for other activities.

  • Place a white tablecloth over the area you intend to work on a jigsaw puzzle. Those with dementia often have trouble with vision, and the added contrast of the tablecloth will help them distinguish the puzzle pieces.

  • There are plenty of other options besides jigsaw puzzles and crosswords. Consider color-by-number puzzles, memory card games, or make up your own games based on everyday tasks like sorting pantry items. Based on your loved one’s abilities, different activities will be more appropriate than others.

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