I was reading this article about a janitor with dementia who grew accustomed to living in a nursing home by doing janitorial duties and I started thinking about my uncle who was a mechanic with his own shop for over 40 years now living in a nursing home with dementia and not touching any car parts for the last couple years and how that must be a bummer.

I'll obviously check with the nursing home before bringing this to him, but are there any engine parts that a mechanic would get a kick out of tinkering with every day? My kids have plastic engines and stuff, but I think he'd like some real parts.

  • Do you want something of aesthetic value to remind him of the past, or something he can really work on/play with?
    – Daniel
    Feb 27, 2019 at 15:24
  • @Daniel probably something he can play with that doesn't look too much like a kids toy. I gave him a vintage coloring book that I don't think he cared for. Feb 27, 2019 at 15:30
  • Hmm, difficult thing is, car parts are big, heavy and dirty. Is there some kind of workshop/garage area where he could tinker on something as big as a bike or a lawn mower?
    – Daniel
    Feb 27, 2019 at 15:34
  • @daniel nope, he's locked in a very clean place. Feb 27, 2019 at 15:40
  • I hate to say it but this seems off-topic for me, both too broad and opinion based. Every dementia patient will have his/her own deficiencies and responses to stimuli, there's no way to answer this with any assurance. It's more of a safety thing, what could he interact with that couldn't hurt him or be used to hurt someone else?
    – GdD
    Feb 27, 2019 at 16:45

4 Answers 4


I too am a mechanic, with 8 years experience, and advise presenting him with an unrefurbished carburetor, it's matching carburetor rebuild kit, and an exploded-view printout of that same exact carburetor. Type and brand of carb to bring depends on his preference, specialties, level of interest and remaining dexterity. A simple single-barrel unrefurbished carburetor of any classic brand will run you $50-$100, rebuild kits average about $35, and printout you could ask nicely for at a local mechanic shop, the library, or a service manual. Small engine or motorcycle carb will only run you $20-$50 with a $15-$30 kit. Larger two and 4-barrel carbs and kits will run you up in the $150-$200 range, and require that much more focus and work space. Seems to me best to see about possibly rekindling his mechanic flame with a ultra-simple used lawn tractor carburetor. You can basically get a used/clogged one for free, rebuild kits run about $25. key points are to give him a carb in need of refurbishing, so he can see the need to rebuild. Get the high quality OEM rebuild kit, not the cheapo, it'll instill more pride in his accomplishment. Be sure to have an accurate clear exploded diagram of the carburetor to limit confusion/frustration. Provide him with adequate lighting, supplies (towels, gloves, carb-cleaner, dust-off, q-tips...). Perhaps he'll enjoy kick'n-ass and start repairing all the facilities small-engine yard equipment! I'm imagining he spent a good portion of his career working on carbureted vehicles, before electronic fuel injection ruled the road. Many mechanics of that era have fiery opinions about that period of great changes in vehicle history, and fiery opinions leave lasting memories which are what we want your Unk to recollect, right? So if Anything, a carburetor should do the trick of inspiring his desire to tinker, or at least get his mind jogging down memory lane. That's just my two cents. It's an honorable thing to stick with your loved ones, and act in ways to fill them with joy.


Generally, it´s not so easy to find something you can really interact with, in a clean inside space without a lot of tools. I assembled some ideas, maybe there is something that works for you.

  1. Items of ascetic value:

    • Piston as vase or ashtray
    • Open cylinder head complete with valves and springs and camshaft. Cleaned, purely as decoration
    • Turbocharger, also decoration.
    • Art sculpture out of used car parts, often found on artisan markets.
    • Tools like micrometer, vernier or a small ratchet to play with.
  2. Tinkering, inside:

    • Gasoline RC model car.
    • Model Steam engine, with appliances.
    • Pocket Bike / Monkey Bike
  3. Tinkering, outside:

    • Old motorcycle.
    • old two-stroke engines such as chainsaws and lawn-mowers. You could buy used from e-bay and let him refurbish to resell them.

PS: If anyone else has some Ideas, feel free to add to this list!

  • 1
    I think a complete cylinder head from something oldish would be ideal. Feb 27, 2019 at 16:01
  • @Steve Matthews: I agree that is the most interesting part to look at. But not too old, should have an overhead camshaft already.
    – Daniel
    Feb 27, 2019 at 16:03
  • 1
    A spare micrometer... or vernier...
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 27, 2019 at 16:42
  • 1
    this may be a bit too much but there are small motorcycles called monkey bikes. Honda had a famous one called z50 monkey. Maybe not initially but with time something like that may be introduced. (maybe even part by part, body first then brakes, engine etc). There is actually a fairly decent reassamble of the aforementioned bike on a discontinued bbc show "James May The Reassambler". You may also look at the other items in that show. Feb 27, 2019 at 21:51
  • +1 on the gas rc car idea, id buy a really cheap one that's prone to breaking and provide him with a lot of extra parts,
    – DatsunZ1
    Feb 28, 2019 at 21:06

An old guy would have changed a thousand SPARK PLUGS . Engine valves and springs. Socket wrench and a few sockets ( he touched it every day) . These are small clean items one could even put in a pocket and if any get lost , no problem.


There is nothing in the OP which says his uncle has dementia. There are many other reasons why people can't live independently.

We don't know details about the particular situation, but among the care homes I know of (and visit regularly) in the UK, none have any facilities for "tinkering" and for safety reasons they would be very reluctant to let the residents have access to anything that could cause harm, which would rule out most hand tools for example.

Note that some care home residents with dementia (not necessarily the OP's uncle of course) are physically fit and active but have no concept of personal property or danger - if they see something as "harmless" as a screwdriver, they might well pick it up, carry it around for a while and put it down in a random place (and with no practical possibility of questioning them about what they did after the event) - or worse, decide to use to poke something out of their own or another resident's eye!!! (They also have no concept of "private space", so unless something is behind a locked door or there are staff monitoring the situation, nowhere is "inaccessible" to them.)

IMO a practical course of action for the OP would be to make the home's handyman or gardener aware of the situation and let them take it from there. Simple and supervised tasks like helping to clean and maintain a lawnmower or leaf blower could be a way to get started, for example.

Finally, don't forget that that the OP's uncle might not want to be reminded of what he can't do any more.

  • How does that answer the question? OP already stated I'll obviously check with the nursing home and this is not a Health advice site.
    – Daniel
    Feb 28, 2019 at 9:17

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