Ben Atkinson-Willes’s grandfather loved jigsaw puzzles–you could regularly find him with a piece in hand, looking for its spot in a 1,000-part set.
But, in the years after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the puzzles dropped to 500 pieces. That turned into 200, and then 50. By the time he had forgotten certain tasks and begun not to recognize his family, he was working on jigsaws meant for toddlers. Kids’ coloring books, toys and games joined the roster of activities that kept him occupied.
“It was really patronizing for someone who was 86,” Atkinson-Willes says. “They were designed for a child rather than for someone with dementia, and they were often too difficult.”
Then a design student at Kingston University in London, England, Atkinson-Willes decided that, if he couldn’t find products tailored specifically to people like his grandfather, he would create them himself. In 2009, he founded Active Minds, which has since become a thriving small business that sells products for adults with dementia—puzzles, books, and coloring kits, to name a few—online and through a number of international speciality retailers.
The business began as a university project. Backed by funding from his school, the now-27-year-old Atkinson-Willes partnered with London’s St. Georges Hospital. With its head of nursing, he spent a day touring local care homes to learn what products elders with dementia were using and what caregivers thought could be improved.
“It seemed ridiculous,” Atkinson-Willes says. “The whole care sector was using children’s toys. No one had come along and created unique products for that market.”
No one had come along and created unique products for that market.
Because of his grandfather, Atikinson-Willes started with jigsaw puzzles. Visiting more care homes, he found that adults with dementia could easily engage with his custom-made, 11-piece puzzles made from foamex. Some of them helped seniors remember family memories or stories from their 20s; while piecing together a picture of a Spitfire plane, a man who hadn’t spoken all day started to recall his time in the war.
Of 70 trial images, the most successful are now available on Active Minds’ website. (Click here.)
They sell Aquapaint (a reusable product that produces pictures when painted with water), picture books and reminiscence cards meant to evoke memories, communication aids and signs, and a selection of exercise equipment sets, most of which cost between $20 and $30. The team—four full-time staff, including a new designer, and two part-timers—plans to add new music-based and gardening products in the coming year.
As Active Minds has grown, so has the awareness of its demographic and their needs. “When I started, it was just me and two other tiny businesses,” Atkinson-Willes says. “Now, there are slowly more and more coming out. [The market] is still small, but it’s ever-expanding.”
He says that new dementia-specific retailers seem to appear every month, which, along with speaking engagements, has helped the company grow its distribution network. Press attention, accolades, and adding the National Health Service (an umbrella that consists of the United Kingdom’s four publicly funded healthcare systems) to Active Minds’s list of clients have done their part, too.
Atkinson-Willes hopes to make his company’s products more accessible in the future, offering them in more countries and ensuring they cater to all ability levels. “Lots of people will get frustrated when they can’t do something because it’s too difficult, so they give up,” he says. “If you provide something that’s accessible, it can transform what they’re capable of.”
Luc Rinaldi is a Toronto-based reporter.
Looking for more dementia jigsaw puzzles? Check out these sites
Springbok Alzheimer’s Jigsaw Puzzles: 36 pieces.
Enjoy-able Living: 11 pieces.
MindStart: 12- to 56-piece sets.