In everyday life we can often take being able to see, hear, smell, taste and touch for granted. Senses give context to the mundane, stir our emotions, affect our body language and have the power to make the ordinary, extraordinary.
Many of us will spend much of our disposable income on making our homes and our lives as appealing for our senses as possible, so it is obvious that applying that same focus to the environments and lives of people with dementia can make a huge difference to the quality and richness they find in each day.
Bland, sterile, faceless environments do not benefit people with dementia. From contrasting colours to calming music or voices, aromas that stir fond memories, favourite foods, and compassionate reassurance to alleviate anger or remove fear, the opportunities to enliven the senses to bring positive therapeutic benefits are extensive, and yet they are often not fully explored.
In some care homes sensory rooms have become very popular, not least because staff who were perhaps sceptical previously see the clear benefits on their residents’ moods, emotions and wellbeing. These rooms can have a wonderfully calming effect on people who are experiencing agitation due to their dementia, and are as valuable as other standalone therapies like music (that I wrote about here) art, gardening or exercise.
Soft, possibly coloured lighting, tactile fabrics, comfy chairs, delicate aromas, relaxing sounds and, crucially, the opportunity to put the person with dementia in charge of what they do by making the room safe for them to move around and try different sensations, is a very enriching activity, particularly when enjoyed with loved ones, offering the chance for renewed family interaction and exploration.
I have visited care homes where they have interpreted the idea of sensory areas in many different ways, for example through having daylight rooms, beach rooms (complete with sand and gentle wave sounds), and sensory gardens with waterfalls and pathways that have been planted up with tactile plants and scented flowers. Conversely I have also walked down many corridors that offer no stimulation, with rooms leading off of them that are virtually identical, and people sat blankly staring into the distance while others are agitated or wandering around a seemingly never ending space that offers them nothing for their wellbeing. The difference in these atmospheres is what separates person-centred care from conveyor-belt care.
For our part, we tried to make my dad’s room a place of sensory delight. For dad, a particularly successful therapy was that of touch. Having been an active farmer all his life, his hands were desperate to be busy again, and without something to hold he was at a loss with that to do with them. Life-like miniature versions of farm animals were dad’s salvation; their soft faux-fur was perfect to stroke, and he could hold one under each arm to cuddle.
This approach was successful because not only did it solve the idle hands problem that dad was experiencing, it solved it by tapping into the touch sensation to calm and relax him. As in all things dementia related, personalisation is the key to therapeutic interventions, and this becomes even more important when the person with dementia has limited or completely non-existent use of one of more of their senses.
Dementia can create huge isolation by its very nature of putting the person with it into their own world that none of us can truly be a part of, but when someone cannot see or hear what is happening to them, who the people are around them and why they are being offered or given particular care, the world is an altogether more frightening place.
A lot of dementia training focuses on explanation and demonstration, not taking into account what happens if the person with dementia cannot benefit from that. If someone cannot see that a carer is trying to feed them, or cannot hear what the meal is and that it is now time to eat, they are likely to panic. If you were blindfolded, given ear plugs and then had someone jabbing at you with a spoon you would probably panic too. Therefore assessing someone’s sensory abilities, whether that be through checking their hearing, eyesight, ability to respond to taste (sometimes tastes need to be stronger as taste buds become duller) and smell (my father could not remember how to blow his nose for the last few years of his life, meaning that he had a permanently blocked nose and sneezed daily) is extremely important so that when it comes to touch, this is appropriate, expected and welcomed.
Touch is what ultimately brings true compassion, and can, when part of person-centred care, compensate for the deterioration of any of the other senses. Touch reminds us of how we are nurtured from birth, and for someone with dementia, those memories of being protected and loved are very empowering. Dementia is a hard road to travel, but making it a more sensory journey nurtures the person, and if there is one thing we would all like to be able to do for a loved one with dementia it would be to make life just that little bit easier for them.
Until next time…