It’s common for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia to experience anxiety and feelings of distress at times. This is especially true if there are changes in the person’s everyday routine or a change in caregivers. Physical discomfort or a medical problem, such as an infection, or side effects of medication can also trigger restlessness and agitation.

Many times people feeling stressed will show it in their hands by pulling at their clothing or bedding, rubbing their skin, or twisting their fingers. In these instances, giving the person a task to perform or a soft toy to hold can calm him/her.

For some adults with dementia, a repetitive but familiar chore such as folding laundry or towels can be soothing and provide a sense of purpose. The activity selected should align with the person’s level of comprehension and interest. Examples of activities to calm restless hands include the following:

  • Knitting
  • Making a puzzle
  • Organizing drawers or stacks of paper
  • Sorting items such as large and small paper clips, buttons, or other objects (as long as they are not a choking hazard)
  • Smoothing out crumpled newspapers or tissue paper
  • Coloring with crayons or color pencils in an adult or children’s coloring book

Engaging people in activities they once enjoyed, such as cooking or baking, can also be therapeutic for the person with dementia as well as for the caregiver. The key is to find an activity that is safe for the person and doesn’t cause more stress and frustration. For example, if a person with dementia used to enjoy cooking but can no longer follow a recipe, he/she can mix pre-measured ingredients instead, or set the table.

Baby dolls can also be soothing and bring back pleasant memories of parenthood. Caring for a doll can also help people with dementia feel needed. Research shows the use of dolls can be therapeutic by increasing the person’s level of engagement and communication, and reducing episodes of distress.[1] While some critics state that giving dolls to older adults is demeaning or infantilizing, many people with dementia find joy and purpose in taking care of dolls. The same is true for lifelike animals such as plush cats that meow, and dogs that wag their tails. These toys, as well as real therapy cats and dogs, can provide relief from boredom and brighten a person’s mood.