What is sensory stimulation for dementia?

One challenge when caring for people with dementia is ensuring they have opportunities to engage with the world around them. Sensory stimulation is one form of enrichment that uses all of the senses to encourage communication, interaction and a general improvement in emotional responses.


Sensory stimulation is when you use an external stimulus to stir one or more of the senses. For example, a hand massage is a kind of tactile stimulation that awakens your sense of touch. If it is combined with scented hand cream, there may also be an olfactory element. The ears can be stimulated by music, whilst the eyes will appreciate different colours.


This type of therapy has its origins in the 1960s and '70s when Dutch therapists initially used it to help people with learning disabilities. Today, it is used to help those with autism and brain injuries and those with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Too much stimulation can be overwhelming, but it can have a strong effect on a person's mood and demeanour when offered in a controlled manner.


Having this kind of stimulation can be a powerful way to recall happy memories. It connects people to their past whilst simultaneously re-engaging them with their current surroundings. This, in turn, can lead to better communication with the people around them as well as improved mood and self-esteem. As people with dementia can often feel lonely and isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, this can be of particular value to them and greatly benefit their overall wellbeing.


How sensory stimulation can help Alzheimer's?

People with Alzheimer's often experience confusion and distress because of their increasing sense of disconnection from the world. It can be harder to recognise people, places and objects, whilst they may also be experiencing physical limitations such as poor eyesight or reduced mobility. This makes it harder for them to express how they are feeling or what they need.


To make people with Alzheimer's feel safer and more relaxed in their home, it can help to surround them with familiar things. This may include books, photographs or a piece of clothing, which may have comforting scents or textures as well as being a recognisable sight. Even if the person with Alzheimer's cannot speak, these objects can encourage positive responses such as smiling.


Using objects and interests that the person had before they developed Alzheimer's is one of the most effective ways to make use of sensory stimulation. One example is someone who spent their childhood by the seaside and may appreciate the texture of sand or a seashell. You can bring objects to them or take them outside to walk in different surroundings. With the help of other objects and sensory stimulation, the person may experience benefits including:


• Improved cognitive function.

• Improved concentration and focus.

• Better communication skills.

• More interest and participation in social activities.

• Less anxiety and increased relaxation.

• Reduced likelihood of depression and low moods.

• Opportunities to revisit happy memories.


How do you build a sensory room for dementia?

Understanding how effective sensory stimulation can be in improving the quality of life for people living with dementia, the next question is how to ensure that sensory stimulation can be provided. Designing a room for someone with dementia is an opportunity to incorporate a range of different stimuli to ensure all their senses can be engaged.


A well-designed sensory room will not be overwhelming, but should include stimulation for all five senses, though not necessarily simultaneously. Sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste all have a role to play, although which stimuli are most effective may vary between individuals.


Sight: Visual stimuli include bright colours and bold images and paintings, especially of familiar places or people. A window can provide an excellent opportunity to broaden the view, so ensure there is a clear line of sight outside. Remember that some people with dementia find reflective surfaces distressing and may be confused by complex visual patterns. You may need to allow for possible perception problems.


Sound: People with dementia may have different tolerance thresholds for noise, so any audio stimulation needs to be tailored to their specific needs. It is best to avoid loud, potentially startling sounds and stick to either natural tones, such as birdsong or running water, or gentle music. Old songs are an excellent way to call back nostalgic memories of happy times. Talking or reading aloud can also be stimulating.


Smell: Again, this can be tailored to the person's personal history and preferences. Perhaps they have a favourite flower or perfume. If they like cooking, maybe you can try and include aromas such as baking bread. Lavender is well known for having a calming scent as well as being something that can recreate fond memories of being outside.


Touch: For some people, using their hands is the best way to recreate enjoyable experiences for the baker, perhaps the opportunity to knead some dough, even if they cannot use the oven. Artistic people may enjoy tissue paper or other craft materials that can be run through the fingers or scrunched up in your hands. The more different textures in the room - wood, metal, plastic, paper, fabric - the better. Things like buttons, zips and ribbons can be used to add contrast to soft objects such as cushions.


It is also important to think about temperature. Cool and warm objects or areas can provide interesting contrasts and create different sensations, perhaps recalling the change of the seasons. Technology can be used to maintain a comfortable temperature with a supply of fresh air.


Taste: Obviously, the food and drink you provide depend on your residents' personal tastes, but you should try to vary the menu as much as possible. A combination of sweet, sour, salty and bitter can provide a well-rounded experience. Strong, distinct flavours such as citrus or peppermint can have a powerful effect. You can also incorporate texture into your food choices. This may include things like bread that are good for tearing with the hands, then something smoother such as jelly.


Movement: Another way for a person to become engaged with their surroundings is to incorporate opportunities for movement. Many people with dementia will have mobility issues, but gentle movements such as those in a rocking chair provide yet another way to add variation to the room.


Regardless as to which senses you are engaging, there are other things to bear in mind that can make sensory stimulation more effective:


Safety: Any room that a person will use with dementia needs to be designed to be safe and comfortable. This means minimising trip hazards, avoiding potential irritants and ensuring a clear layout and labelling for those with perception issues. The room should be secure even if no one is available to supervise.


Avoid overstimulation: People with dementia can be overwhelmed by too many sensory experiences at once. Lights that are too bright, or create too many shadows, can be sources of distress. Loud noises can cause a fearful response. Too many colours or patterns may lead to confusion. The room should maintain a calming aura even when filled with potential sources of stimulation, so remember to show restraint in the design.


Natural sources: Evidence suggests that whilst electric lighting can positively impact people with dementia, natural lighting is still better for their overall well-being. You can bring outside objects such as stones, conkers, plants and water features into the building. Similarly, natural sounds such as birdsong, or natural scents from flowers, can be some of the most potent kinds of sensory stimulation. It means that a person who may have to spend a lot of time indoors can still feel connected to the outside world.


Accessibility: Sometimes, you may design and build a sensory room only to find it remains unused. This may be because of flaws in the design or the personal preferences of residents. In other cases, staff may be unfamiliar with sensory stimulation and uncomfortable using the room and its equipment. This means effort needs to be made to be sure both staff and residents understand the room and its purpose and make it as accessible as possible to everyone. If the room is adapted to the requirements of the individuals using it, then evidence suggests it can be highly effective.


Catalyst Interiors has many years of experience designing a range of facilities for people with dementia, including residential, care and nursing homes. We are the leading experts in our field, specialising in tailoring our designs to your specific needs. That means if you want to include a sensory room for your residents, we can help plan it, so it is safe and effective, making use of the most appropriate furnishings and decoration.


We will discuss the particular symptoms and histories of your residents with you so your sensory room can incorporate the stimuli best suited to their circumstances, along with as many natural features as possible. The end result will be a comforting, engaging room that allows them the best opportunity to interact with the world and people around them and giving them a better quality of life.


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