What Therapy Options Are There for People with Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple components to it, and so it makes sense that the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is also multi-faceted. There is no cure for the disease, and there is no treatment that will help stop or get rid of the symptoms, or even slow progression of the disease.

Instead, the aims of treatment are to help patients maintain their cognitive functioning, manage behavioral symptoms, and alleviate some of the symptoms that may be most bothersome and impairing quality of life.1

Treatment often depends on the stage of Alzheimer’s and the accompanying symptoms. Since symptoms can change over time, as well as vary in severity, treatment plans may shift or remain a fluid work-in-progress. This is why it’s helpful for people with Alzheimer’s disease to have attuned caregivers and see the doctor regularly for check-ups.

While treatment can include medications for memory, behavior, or mood, there are also non-drug therapy options available that can be helpful and help bolster quality of life.

Cognitive therapy

Cognitive therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia focuses on addressing cognitive deficits through exercises that target specific cognitive functions in order to improve cognitive functioning.2 This can include reality orientation therapy, skills training, and memory training.2,3 These therapies use guided practice on standardized tasks and may vary based on how much progress the individual makes – but the aim is also to simply maintain functioning in an area.3

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) not only includes behavioral techniques to help treat mood disorders like depression and anxiety, but also involves cognitive restructuring or changing negative thoughts and beliefs to more positive ones.4 Because CBT does require a certain amount of introspection and reflection, it is most beneficial in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease.4 CBT can also involve couples therapy, which may be especially beneficial for the partner of the person with Alzheimer’s disease.

Occupational therapy

At its most basic, occupational therapy helps individuals do things they want (and/or need) to do by adapting everyday activities in a therapeutic way. For patients with Alzheimer’s disease, this means adapting the environment and figuring out how the person can remain engaged in activities, keep them safe, and maintain quality of life.5 Examples can include having large signs with directions on how to heat up a meal, removing access to dangerous things like sharp objects, removing fall risks, and encouraging remembering long-term memories through pictures and talking about the past.

Occupational therapy can be beneficial at every stage of Alzheimer’s disease for both the patient and the caregiver, since the physical, mental, and emotional needs change as the disease progresses.

Music and art therapy

Music therapy and art therapy have been shown to have beneficial effects on cognition and neuropsychiatric syndromes.6,7 Some research shows beneficial effects on autobiographical and episodic memories, psychomotor speed, executive functioning, and global cognition.6

There are various kinds of music therapy, including simply listening to music, singing along, and using multisensory stimulation with music. Music therapy should be done with a trained and certified music therapist so they can tailor the therapy to the specific needs of the patient, based on the research. While many studies have shown the benefits of music therapy, others have not. Talk with the doctor about whether this may be a beneficial treatment option.

Art therapy, on the other hand, uses various art forms and materials to engage in the creative process as a way to explore feelings, increase self-esteem, and develop social skills. Goals of art therapy include improving physical functioning and well-being. Projects can include the use of oil or watercolor paints, pastels, clay, and other media based on the project and or physical limitations of the individual in therapy.7

Group exercise programs

It has been documented that exercise can help delay cognitive decline in those with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as potentially reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease – as well as reduce cardiovascular disease, which has its own associations with Alzheimer’s disease.8,9

Exercise helps boost blood flow to the brain and can help reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which are also risk factors for dementia.9 A group setting can also provide socialization and reduce isolation, which can help those with Alzheimer's stay connected to others. Before starting any physical activity, it’s best to check with the person’s doctor to make sure they’re cleared for exercise and to be aware of any possible risks or restrictions they might have.

There are various therapy options that are used to help treat a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Talk with the person’s doctor to see what might be most appropriate for them and about whether there are any considerations to keep in mind.

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Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: September 2021