Activity mats, sometimes called activity aprons, fidget quilts, or fidget blankets, are a simple way to provide much-needed sensory stimulation that can help people with dementia be calmer, more cooperative, more alert, and more responsive.
However, not all activity mats are created equal. A high-quality activity mat designed by someone with expertise and experience with dementia can be an amazing game-changer and can improve the quality of life for people with dementia and their caregivers. But there are a lot of activity mats on the market that might do more harm than good.
Your loved one’s safety and peace of mind is too important. Make sure you know who designed the activity mat. Was it a trained gerontologist or just someone selling Alzheimer’s products?
Here are some important things to consider before you make or buy an activity mat for your loved one.
- Avoid very rough textures. Our skin becomes thinner and more fragile as we age. At first glance, it might seem like a fun idea to include a rough texture such as scratchy burlap or sandpaper on an activity mat. However, your loved one could easily end up rubbing the rough texture over and over again, and it wouldn’t take long before your loved one is scratched or bleeding.
Lesson: Make sure whoever designed the activity mat knows the difference between interesting textures and dangerous ones.
- Avoid mirrors. Here’s a common caregiver experience: “Every time Mom caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror she would freak out. It took me a while to even figure out what was going on. She would see this old woman in the mirror and not know what she was looking at or who that person was. I guess that in her mind, she’s about 27 years old, so mirrors are just confusing.”
Lesson: An activity mat designed by a trained gerontologist can help you avoid mirrors and other nasty triggers that you might not even think about.
- Avoid frustrating activities. Some activity mats have mainly functional tasks that can be frustrating for people with dementia. For example, tasks such as buttoning or lacing are probably only appropriate if your loved one is at an early stage of dementia and has a lot of dexterity. However, if your loved one needs assistance getting dressed, has arthritis, or has difficulty with fine motor skills, then they will probably benefit most from an activity mat that isn’t based on functional tasks. An activity mat will only work if it’s fun, not stressful.
Lesson: Be realistic about your loved one’s abilities and choose an activity mat that is designed to provide sensory input, rather than one that creates difficult tasks such as buttoning or lacing.
- Avoid chaotic patterns and colors. A properly designed activity mat should soothe and comfort a person with Alzheimer’s, while giving them a meaningful activity. You don’t want neon colors and super busy-patterns to make your loved one more agitated. As a rule, chaos is aggravating and order is calming.
Lesson: Your loved one might respond better to a well-organized mat, rather than one that seems to have items randomly stuck on it.
- Avoid activity mats without enough elements. One of the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is a short attention span. Your loved one will lose interest in an activity mat more quickly if it does not have enough unique textures and elements. On the other hand, if there’s too much going on, the mat can seem chaotic or overwhelming. To get the most of your mat and provide the most fulfilling experience for your loved one, select a mat that has 12 – 14 elements.
Lesson: Ideally, you want a carefully selected combination of 12 – 14 textures and activities that help your loved one be calmer and more alert.
- Avoid creating more work for yourself and other caregivers. You’ll regret it if your mat doesn’t include these 3 common sense features:
- It should be machine washable. Some activity mats advertise that they are “washable.” Read the fine print because sometimes “washable” just means you can pat it clean with a washcloth.
- It should have a strap to attach it to an armchair, walker, bedrail, wheel chair, etc. Some activity mats are just like placemats or little lap blankets that will constantly fall down onto the floor as your loved one shifts position or drops it. With a strap, caregivers won’t have to bend over all day to get the mat off the floor.
- It should have a way to label your loved one’s name. This is especially important if your loved one receives care in a facility with other people who have Alzheimer’s or dementia. In facilities, things are always getting misplaced, hidden, or borrowed.
Lesson: Activity mats should have features to make life easier for the caregiver, not just the person with dementia.
- Avoid Regrets. Every person with dementia has different needs. Although activity mats are wonderful and helpful for most people, you want to be able to return the mat if your loved one does not respond well to it.
Lesson: Your activity mat should have a 100% Absolute Satisfaction Guarantee.
Alzheimer’s disease is a complicated medical condition, and sometimes it’s hard to know what we can do to help our loved ones. Giving your loved one an activity mat designed by a trained gerontologist, such as a Geraplay Activity Mat, can help give your loved one meaningful sensory input to make them happier, calmer, and more engaged. Good luck on your journey!