If your loved one is often anxious or agitated, sensory therapies are simple ways to provide comfort and connection without relying on medication.
Everyday objects that once held meaning can stimulate the five senses – touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight – to spark fond memories or evoke happy feelings associated with highlights in your loved one’s life.
Knowing where your loved one is on their journey – what they currently like, what they remember, what brings or used to bring them joy – is important. For as long as they are able, encourage them to choose their activities. If they are unable to communicate their preferences, make a concerted effort to incorporate parts of their past they were proud of, like raising a family, their fulfilling career or famous blue-ribbon pies, hobbies, and other life achievements.
“Dementia takes away memories, the ability to reason, and other cognitive functions like spatial awareness that can cause people to feel disconnected with the world around them,” says Suzy McCann, Community Relations Director of YourLifeTM of Pensacola, a Memory Care community in Pensacola, Florida. “But for many of us, our senses, and their powerful connections to our memories and emotions that ground us, don’t go away.”
Even if your loved one has lost their sight or hearing, or if their senses of taste and smell have faded, they can still benefit from other sensory stimulations. In fact, sensory stimulation works best when focused on one sense at a time, so even if used exclusively, tactile therapy, for example, is very powerful on its own.
In this post, we’ll present recommended items and approaches to engage each of the five senses that can make your loved one feel safe and relaxed, allow them to express themselves, and improve their mood, self-esteem, confidence and overall well-being.
Five Sense-Sational Ways to Engage Your Loved One
Tactile stimulation engages touch-based activities to occupy the hands, focus the mind, and redirect nervous or anxious energy.
Engage your loved one with interesting textures that can spark dialogue. A beach box, for example, may remind your loved one of fun family vacations or prompt conversations about ocean life. Pour sand in a plastic bin and bury shells and stones of varying sizes and textures for your loved one to find.
Other tactile stimuli include:
• Sandpaper, plastic fruits and pinecones
• Bubble wrap to pop
• Non-toxic finger paints or Play-Doh
• Hand massages
Objects that represent hobbies the person identified with prior to dementia, such as a golf ball or a blanket they knitted, can be particularly powerful tactile tools for memory stimulation or used to reestablish a sense of self.
Auditory stimulation is very useful for mood enhancement, cognition and relaxation. It is also a powerful reminiscence tool.
You can download an internet app or pull up a free site like YouTube to find anything from calming nature sounds like waves, waterfalls, birds and breezes to classical music, hymns, showtunes and big band favorites from their youth.
Speaking in audible, soothing and light-hearted tones or reading aloud to your loved one can comfort them and reassure them that they are not alone, particularly in advanced stages of dementia. If your loved one becomes frustrated because they cannot follow a conversation or storyline, however, discontinue the activity and put on their favorite music or find a no-fail activity that will restore self-confidence.
Of the five senses, we gain most of our information and opportunities for sensory stimulation through vision. Dementia can signiﬁcantly interfere with visual processing in the brain, but there are visual stimulation therapies that can help even the sight-impaired. Visual stimulation for people with dementia can involve light, colors, shapes, motion or a combination of these.
• Light therapy: Some of the key beneﬁts of bright light therapy include improved sleep cycles, decreased wandering, and improved cognition and behavioral functioning.
• Movies and classic reruns: Choose a familiar movie with an easy-to-follow plot. A favorite, oft-seen movie or commercial-free (read: disruption-free) reruns of a beloved show are good choices. Movies or shows set in nature or with calming music may also appeal to and soothe your loved one.
• Décor: Environments matter to people with dementia. Provide comfortable furniture and place photos of loved ones and sentimental treasures in your loved one’s line of sight.
Olfactory stimulation brings to the surface some of our most deep-seated memories and associative feelings. A scent that your loved one associates with a happy or purposeful time in their past can transport them to that era.
Try to find specific smells that your loved one will recognize and associate with positive feelings. Clothes washed in the laundry detergent they preferred to use or a spritz of their signature perfume can give them comfort and a sense of self.
Many essential oils provide universally comforting scents and are suggested to improve cognitive function in persons with dementia. Note: Always use as instructed. Oils can be used with a diffuser, added to a bath, inhaled or applied topically, but some oils must be diluted or applied with a carrier oil such as coconut or jojoba oil.
• Lavender has calming properties and helps balance strong emotions
• Peppermint awakens brain function, calms nerves, and is known to help people focus
• Rosemary improves cognitive functioning
• Bergamot improves mood and can relieve anxiety and symptoms of mild depression
• Lemon balm can be a bit pricey but is shown to relieve anxiety and insomnia, improve memory, and ease digestion
Like olfactory stimuli, favorite dinners or a speciﬁc dish one has not had in a long time can trigger a surge of memories. Gustatory stimulation can be achieved with:
• Spices and flavorings
• Turmeric, which is a therapeutic herb with calming properties.
• Cinnamon, berries, organic coconut, and green and black tea
• Ginger to stimulate appetite
“Sensory therapy sessions can spark memories, but they are most successful when the only expectation is to bring your loved one joy,” says Suzy McCann from YourLife™ of Pensacola. “It’s okay if your loved one doesn’t remember why an object or particular song is important. Their senses can still make positive emotional associations that will boost their spirits and ease anxieties.”
See how YourLife™ of Pensacola’s sensory therapy programs spark memories and soothe residents. Contact our team at 850-290-2632 to schedule your personal visit.
The Memory Care Your Loved One Deserves.
Offering the very best in Memory Care, YourLife™ of Pensacola was designed specifically with residents in mind. We’ve created a community where residents can define their own lifestyle, based on their preferences, needs and story, all while having the peace of mind of 24-hour support and the freedom to define their own lifestyles.
Because we focus solely on Memory Care, all our resources and attention are on catering to each resident’s needs while providing unequaled peace of mind for families. Our licensed nurses and YourLife™ Personal Care Specialists are on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide personally inspired care and support, no matter what your needs. With such dedicated care, our residents have the support they need to live as independently and engaged as possible.
At YourLife™ of Pensacola, YourStory comes to life. Whether you want to enjoy our exclusive activities and YourStory programming, spend time exploring our services and amenities, relax in our easy-to-navigate Memory Care neighborhoods and living areas or try something new, the choice is entirely up to you. Contact us to learn more!