Not just a buzzword, mindfulness is a great way to ground ourselves in the present. And, for people living with dementia, mindfulness can be a very powerful activity…
“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.” Mother Teresa
Used to combat stress, anxiety, depression, pain management and other mental health challenges, mindfulness is simply about taking time to pay attention to our experience in the present moment.
Doing this has the effect of slowing our breathing, calming us down and stopping a busy mind from worrying and racing ahead. Recommended by health experts for mental well-being, it can really improve life for people living with dementia.
People living with dementia and Alzheimer’s can experience mood swings, changes in behaviour and increased sensitivity to noise, crowds and activity. In addition, those who have experienced loss or are going through a significant change like a move to a care home may have symptoms of depression.
A recent study in America found that mindfulness meditation reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and pain at the same rate as antidepressant medication, and there is increasing evidence that mindfulness activities slow the progression of memory-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Mindfulness also helps the person to stop worrying about being forgetful or confused, and to focus on what they can do now, and it also helps improve attention, memory and general cognition. It might even help with self-awareness, and emotion regulation.
Three simple mindfulness techniques to get you started:
Breathing – Take a few moments to focus on breathing. Feel the flow of air in, and out; feel the belly rise, and fall. Do this several times.
Taking notice – Tap into each of your senses – what can you hear, smell, see, touch? Even when you are doing day-to-day things – driving, eating, walking – start to notice the colours around you, the textures you can feel, the sounds around you. Looking for these things brings you back to the present moment again.
Bringing your thoughts back – Look out for times when you’re running on autopilot – stop, just for a moment, close your eyes, breathe. Acknowledge that your mind will wander, allow the thoughts, and then bring your mind back to your moment of mindfulness.
Once you have mastered the simplicity of breathing and taking notice, it’s time to move onto some simple exercises. What will work best for residents is short, engaging exercises which entirely hold their attention for a short time, making them focus on what is happening right now.
Here are a few exercises to try…
The Breathing Circle – This is a great breathing exercise to do with residents each morning. It only takes five minutes and is simple to follow. Draw a large circle on a piece of paper, mark the top and bottom of the circle with a small dot. Then, slowly inhale, while drawing your finger in a clockwise direction along the circle from the top mark to the bottom mark. When you reach the bottom, slowly exhale as you trace your finger back towards the top. Repeat, and go as slowly as everyone can manage.
Guess Which Hand – Move a small object from hand to hand, several times. Then close your hands into fists, and ask residents to guess which hand the object is hidden in.
The Raisin Exercise – A well-known mindfulness exercise, this is a great way to start with mindfulness, by centring your attention entirely on one object. Any food can be used and an unfamiliar food or one with unusual qualities works best. Get residents to describe how the item looks, feels, smells and tastes. Simple!
Body Scan – A simple way to slow down the mind and body, and release tension. Get residents to sit in a comfortable position, their palms facing upwards and feet slightly apart. Close their eyes and breathe. Then, move their attention to their feet, concentrate on any tension there, it might help them to curl their toes and then release them. Move slowly up the body – legs, stomach, chest, arms, shoulders, head – finding tension and releasing it. Finish with a few more deep breaths and then open your eyes.
Yoga – Yoga provides strong feelings of well-being, keeps limbs active and stretched, and if the sessions are accompanied by music it can help with imagination and memory recall too. Do yoga sessions in a well-lit, relatively empty room. You can start with breathing exercises, before moving onto simple stretches to improve flexibility, balance and confidence. Finally finish with the reclined position of savasana, leaving a dedicated time for calming the body and mind. Why not start with some gentle armchair yoga. And there is a simple exercise session here too.
And finally – a few other mindfulness exercises…
In addition to the activities listed above, try these mindfulness exercises for added benefit:
- Use aromatherapy – Pick a range of scents to help with mood, energy and healing.
- Listen to calming music – There is a wide range of relaxation music available, and many online music platforms will have calming playlists.
- Create some daily rituals – Routine and ritual really helps focus the mind. If there’s a way that a resident likes to welcome the day, such as writing in their journal, opening a window, having a cup of tea or saying a short prayer, try to work it into their daily routine.
- Try therapeutic colouring – This is great for quietening the mind. If a resident can’t colour, look at some online programmes that do a digital version of paint-by-numbers which you can use a touchpad for.
- Plan the following day – Knowing what’s ahead is really important for some people. The simple process of planning what they will do tomorrow can be calming and soothing.
- Keep a journal – Morning and evening journals are a great way to reflect at the end of the day for people living with dementia. Provide a set of simple statements or questions like the following: I was happy when … / I am excited about … / I feel … Even if the answers don’t relate to the day that has just gone by, this time to reflect is positive for them.