Scent and dementia expert Linda Harman explains why activities – even the simplest ones – can be vital for giving someone with dementia a sense of purpose and identity

“I’m bored!” The last time I said that I was probably about 12 years old. Boredom seems to be something we grow out of when we reach sufficient maturity to be able to choose how to occupy and entertain ourselves independently from the people around us. That is, until we get old…

Many people living in residential care spend a great proportion of their time unoccupied or under-occupied. This, as much as the physical care that they receive, presents a huge threat to their wellbeing. Our need to be active is inherent in each of us. What we do gives us a sense of achievement or maybe, contentment. It frames how well we feel.

Throughout life, the activities that we choose define us, whether it is our occupation or recreation. We describe each other through employment, lifestyle or hobby as well as gender, age and appearance. Activity, therefore, is much more than a means of earning money or filling time. Activity makes us who we are; the runner, the fisherman, the teacher….

When age starts to make everyday activities more difficult, it is common for people to feel despondent as they measure themselves against their previous accomplishments. People living with dementia frequently withdraw from social and domestic activity as the disease progresses. It is well known though, that older people who remain engaged in the world are generally much happier, so encouraging participation in activities is a very important part of dementia care.

For each individual, the activity that is most relevant will be different. The challenge for care providers, be they family or professional, is to include people with dementia in everyday activities in a way that makes them feel that they are making a contribution. Dusting a shelf, even if it takes all afternoon. Washing the cups, even if they go in the dishwasher afterwards. Sorting the washing…

Doing things that matter bring a person pleasure and make them feel that they are making a contribution regardless of their cognitive impairment. Talking and being listened to makes a huge difference to how a person feels. One of my older friends tells me the same story every time she sees me. It doesn’t matter. Seeing me obviously reminds her or her past somehow, so she tells me about it and it makes her feel happy to recall what she used to do. It takes nothing more than a little patience on my part to help her feel better.

Sometimes it can be more difficult to engage a person in conversation. In this case, the more sensory channels you can use the better. Touch, taste, smell, sound and sight are all channels for communication so we can put an item into a person’s hands so that they can feel it, show images, describe them with words, maybe the image will evoke a song or a smell. The sense of smell provides an underused but highly relevant connection, given the chemistry of the sense and its link to memory. Smells remind us of people, places and things like no other sense. It is an emotional sense which means that, even if a person cannot relate the facts of an occasion they may well recall the feelings so the smell of something they used to love may well bring a moment of happiness. And if I achieve that for a person living with dementia – it makes my day!