How to help a person with Alzheimer’s feel useful

It bears repeating: People with dementia aren’t “done.” They have led productive, valuable lives, and often they still love to help in whatever way they can—it’s part of the human desire to feel needed and useful. “Letting” them help isn’t about busywork, and your elder’s usefulness isn’t a fiction; tasks actually do need to be done, and actively contributing builds dignity and self-worth. That’s true for anyone, dementia or not.

As often as you can, creatively engage elders with Alzheimer’s in whatever needs doing, even if it takes twice or three times as long (and believe me, it might). Here are just a few easy ways to engage elders with dementia in everyday tasks. Please post your own ideas and stories below. (Don’t miss the story of Frances and the piano!)

  • Drying dishes
  • Brushing or petting a gentle dog
  • Folding laundry (it doesn’t matter if it’s not “neat”)
  • Dusting tables
  • Brushing your own hair
  • Washing the car with you
  • Putting together gift boxes for military personnel, needy children, or any group your elder connects with

How to enlist elders’ help during worship services

Worship services provide numerous ways for people with dementia to help, and many seniors have long-term memories of serving at their own churches.

  • Ask one of your friendliest residents to be the greeter, meeting people at the door to say “Welcome.” Even if they only welcome one or two people and then get distracted or wander off, that’s fine.
  • If you decide to print up a simple bulletin for the residents and family members, have someone hand one out to each attendee.
  • Another person can pass out hymn books, as well as collect them at the end of the service. Sometimes residents may not want to relinquish the hymn books—don’t worry about it. Tell them it’s fine if they want to hang onto it for now; you’ll be able to get it later when they move on to something else.
  • Did anyone in your community play organ or piano for their church? Encourage them to play prelude music!

Frances and the Piano

Recently, a resident’s husband told me that his wife, Frances (name changed), had played piano for her church for 30 years. He really wanted her to play again, but apparently she hadn’t played in a long time. I decided to ask her anyway, 30 minutes before the Sunday worship service began.

Me: Hi there Frances! Would you be willing to play prelude music for today’s church service? I hear you’re quite the pianist!

Frances: Well … I could give it a try, maybe, but I’m not sure.

Me: That would be great! No pressure at all, you can play as much or as little as you like. Come with me, and I’ll show you where the piano is.

I took her to the piano … and lo and behold, once she sat down she immediately began playing nearly flawlessly – hymn after hymn. The staff couldn’t believe it; several started taking photos and videos to capture the moment. It was fabulous to watch her simply play from muscle memory, with no sheet music (though she thought she was reading music from the lyrics-only songbook she propped up in front of her). It was a magical time of seeing her long-term memory come to life, and by the time she was done she had a big smile on her face.

Even better, Frances has continued to play before church every so often. Last Sunday, she told me she wasn’t going to play, but finally decided to knock out a couple of songs while I helped people get settled. Two other ladies with dementia stood nearby, enjoying the music and even singing softly while Francis played a fantastic version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” complete with syncopation.

At the end, as Frances was preparing to leave the piano bench, she pointed to one of the ladies and said to me, with a tinge of indignation, “She thought I was playing Waltzing Matilda!”

Peace be with you,


Photo by Lukas Budimaier

2 thoughts on “How to help a person with Alzheimer’s feel useful

  1. Dale C. Willard says:

    Elisa, these are wonderful. The substance is packed with wisdom and insight—and love. The simplicity with which you roll out these ideas and concepts is remarkable. I find myself thinking: of course; I’d never thought of that: what a great idea; that makes perfect sense….What a gift you have for this!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.