We look at what’s going on in the brain when you do a dementia jigsaw puzzle, and why it can be beneficial.

That feeling of satisfaction once you place the final piece into a jigsaw is one you probably remember as a child. And if you continued to enjoy doing jigsaws in adult life, you’ll appreciate how engrossing, addictive and entertaining they can be.

That’s why including them as part of dementia care is a great way of providing an enjoyable activity for someone with the condition.

Benefits of jigsaw puzzles

Slowing down decline
There’s been plenty of research into why doing jigsaws can be beneficial for someone with a healthy brain (including reducing the risk of developing dementia), but less about the benefits if you’ve already been diagnosed with the condition.

In a Cochrane Review of different studies, scientists looked at 15 studies involving 718 men and women with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The review was looking at the effect that mentally challenging activities that stimulated thinking and memory, such as games and jigsaw puzzles could have on someone with the condition. Study participants generally did the activity for around 45 minutes at least twice a week, either with trained care staff or with family carers.

The Review found that mental stimulation improved scores on memory and thinking tests for those with dementia, equivalent to about a six to nine month delay in worsening of symptoms.

Some of the studies also found that those with dementia who engaged in such activities had increased feelings of well-being and a better quality of life, including improved communication and interactions with those around them.

The feel-good effect
Which brings us on to the next important benefit of doing jigsaws. Research has discovered that the production of a feel-good chemical called dopamine increases in the brain at the time that it’s engaged in solving a jigsaw puzzle, providing the participant with a natural feeling of enjoyment and happiness.

Puzzles as meditation
Doing a jigsaw puzzle exercises both sides of the brain simultaneously, and allows the brain to move from what’s known as the Beta state – the wakeful mind – into an Alpha state, which is the same mental state you experience when you’re dreaming.

Essentially, doing a jigsaw can have a meditative and therapeutic effect on the brain, helping to calm someone with dementia and help them to feel content. During this Beta state, connections within the brain can be built, which explains how people with dementia who do jigsaws can even delay the worsening of their symptoms.

That’s why jigsaws can be useful if the person you care for has a tendency to become restless or agitated. Doing the puzzle requires their full concentration and so provides a focus for excess energy.

Overall health benefits
What’s more, because doing a jigsaw helps you enter this almost meditative state, it also has an effect on general health, including lowering breathing rate, slowing the heart rate and reducing blood pressure.

Feeling of achievement
Finally, it’s important to not underestimate how satisfying and rewarding it can be for someone with dementia to complete a task, when other activities and tasks – such as reading a chapter of a book, or writing a letter to a friend – can be difficult to finish.

While some people with dementia may need help to complete a puzzle, if they jigsaw they use is suitable for their level of dementia, it should be possible to finish, which will help to provide a sense of purpose and achievement. And best of all? Once they’ve finished the puzzle, they can break it up and start all over again!

What should you think about when picking dementia jigsaws?

The number of pieces in a jigsaw
When it comes to providing a jigsaw for someone with dementia, it’s important to consider what stage they’re at in the dementia journey and how that might impact on their ability to complete it.

For example, someone in the very early stages may still be able to complete a 100 or 200 piece jigsaw with minimal difficulty. But if you’re in the mid stages, it becomes very difficult as cognitive decline means complicated puzzles are just too much for someone with dementia.

That’s where jigsaws for dementia can be very useful. They’re designed to contain less pieces – typically between 12 and 35 pieces – so they’re simpler to complete, but with images that are suitable for an adult, and which may help to stimulate reminiscence and conversation.

Personalised jigsaw puzzles
Another option is personalised jigsaws. These are dementia-specific jigsaws which let you use an image that is personal to you or the person with dementia, such as a family photo, favourite pet or view of their home. The benefit of of this is that by adding a personal touch into the puzzle, it creates an even greater connection with the person with dementia, helping to boost enjoyment and contentment. They're extremely useful for encouraging conversation and reminiscence.

To see the full range of jigsaw puzzles available on Unforgettable, click here.