Not Just for Children: Age Appropriate Toys for People with Dementia

Play is sometimes seen as the sole reserve of children.  Yet it is a valuable component of our lifelong experience  that encourages joy, spontaneity, creativity, learning and interaction with others across generational boundaries.    There are such benefits associated with playfulness that it merits active exploration for people with dementia.

I’ve written about doll therapy in the past and you can read my previous article by clicking on the link here.  This can been seen as controversial due to people’s discomfort about infantalisation .  Personally I’m convinced of its therapeutic value.  I’ve seen so many real life examples  where dolls and soft toys provide comfort and meaning to a person.

I also feel that it is worth experimenting to see if a person gains enjoyment from other toys that are a good match for their interests and abilities.    This can be a cheap exercise, for example if toys from younger family  members are borrowed so that their value can be explored.  And of course inter-generational play, perhaps involving a grandparent and their grandchildren circumvents some of those arguments about age appropriateness and can promote initial engagement.

Here’s three examples that I’ve chosen because they  have wide appeal  across the generations.    I hope they spark ideas about how other readily available toys may provide enjoyment and therapeutic benefit for people with dementia.

Doll’s Houses

Building and kitting out doll’s houses is a popular adult hobby.   The husband of a friend makes a living from designing and producing intricate, one-off,  miniature pieces of furniture.  I’ve  also been following a blog of a vintage clothing aficionado who is enjoying furnishing her own tiny retro house that is a reminder of her childhood.  This is an activity which can be as cheap or expensive.  Doll’s houses and their contents can be heirloom pieces.  At the other end of the scale they can be cheaply produced, even using recycled material.  Follow this link for inspiration. Although this is a parenting site many of the ideas will be attractive to adults as well.  I love the versions made out of suitcases and CD holders.

There’s so much scope for enriching a person’s life by focusing on these tiny worlds.   Making the home and choosing things to put into it can be such a creative process.  There is also potential for reminiscence and encouraging narrative.  Couldn’t doll houses be seen as a type of memory box?

Slot Car Racing

Scalextric is the most well known slot car manufacturer but there are others available.  I’ve included this here for consideration as I’ve heard so many stories where children have received a set for a Christmas or a birthday present but their dad takes over as soon as it is unwrapped!  It is likely to be a familiar activity to older people with dementia as these cars have been available since the 1950s.  They may well have owned one themselves or bought them for their children.

I  see benefits in using this type of toy to encourage problem solving, exploring cause and effect and promoting hand-eye coordination.  The main reason though is that racing these cars can provide so much fun and laughter.  How about race nights in day centres or care home settings?

Swingball

I wanted to include an example that promotes physical activity and have chosen swingball because it is easy to set up and does not need enormous amounts of space.    It can be enjoyed by people with limited mobility even those who are chair bound.  Adjust the rope length to restrict range of movement so that the person isn’t overreaching.   Sets are  available that have larger bats to make the game easier.  Provide appropriate supervision so that the game can be enjoyed safely.  For example, make sure the rope doesn’t present a suffocation risk, check that people are spaced so that they cannot hit each other and make sure that the tennis ball is soft enough not to hurt if the person gets hit by it.

Again this is another activity that is great for promoting hand-eye coordination.  It is quite a forgiving exercise.  If the person misses the ball they have another chance as the ball moves up and down the spring.  The act of hitting the ball also provides proprioceptive input that can be helpful in regulating emotion.

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