Caregivers of older adults with dementia often search for ways to help slow the progression of the disease. It makes sense since dementia is one of the most heartbreaking diseases. Its progression entails losing memories, changing personalities, and even losing the ability to communicate with loved ones. Caregivers are always searching for ways they can connect with and maintain their relationships with their loved ones, and one of the ways they can do that is by actively helping to keep brain activity healthy through sensory stimulation. This is a type of therapy that most caregivers can learn and practice at home. It has been used in Europe with some good results.
What Is Sensory Stimulation?
Sensory stimulation consists of using one of the five senses (vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) to evoke positive feelings. It can be as simple as cooking a meal that smells and tastes familiar or that reminds an elderly loved one of his or her childhood home. It can mean painting a room a comforting color or giving a gentle massage. Originally, this type of therapy was used for people with learning disabilities, because it helps students learn in a safe and productive environment that can be personalized for their particular needs.
How Does it Help?
In addition to evoking calm feelings, appropriate sensory stimulation can also help dementia-affected seniors communicate. Using photographs, objects, colors, or even written labels can help seniors who are struggling to communicate and to relate to the world around them understand questions, respond to verbal cues, or remain calm in a stressful situation.
Essentially, dementia attacks the connections between neurons that allow the brain to process information received by the senses and other parts of the brain. As these connections die, it is harder and harder for patients to speak, to remember, and even to move with grace and balance. Since it is progressive and fatal, Alzheimer’s is often a slow, tough road for seniors and their caregivers as connections are lost. However, connections used least often are the ones that are lost first, meaning that caregivers and care providers can use sensory stimulation to help maintain and reinforce connections that already exist, plus allow seniors to use pre-existing connections to communicate through bypassing lost neural connections. Instead of relying on the language part of the brain to constantly relay information, for example, seniors can be presented with objects that cue activities or offer a choice—chicken or beef for dinner? A red or blue shirt? A specific order for brushing teeth, washing the face, and getting ready for bed can help, as well, as the routine meets sensory stimulation and helps the brain navigate in a stress free manner.
Sensory stimulation can also help reduce depression and anxiety. Seniors with dementia often struggle to communicate and feel connected, which means isolation, loneliness, boredom, and frustration—all things that can lead to being deeply unhappy and agitated. By providing positive feelings and small ways to increase independence and communication, caregivers can stave off these negative emotions and keep their loved ones emotionally healthy.
How Can Caregivers Practice Sensory Stimulation at Home?
The first step toward using sensory stimulation at home is to re-orient toward the positive in regard to the elderly loved one. Instead of dwelling on the person’s limitations (or can’t-dos), caregivers do well to think about the elderly loved one’s possibilities (can-dos). If the person cannot articulate what he or she would like to do on a given day, but is capable of choosing from several options, using visual cues works well. By presenting a day in the park by showing a colorful photograph of nature, or presenting a puzzle with a brightly-colored box, or denoting a visit to a concert with a vibrant album cover, while also removing other stimuli (such as television or radio in the background), the caregiver will help the dementia-affected person to visualize offerings and make choices.
Can-dos include physical activities that are safe and enjoyable for the elderly loved one. Walks on pleasant days should always be accompanied to ensure the elderly person does not wander, but an older adult can enjoy the feel of sunshine on the skin, the smell of flowers, or the sounds of children playing in the neighborhood. This is all sensory information that can bring up positive feelings. Crafting, using items that are interesting in color, shape, and texture can also be a good way to increase brain activity and stave off boredom—quilting, scrapbooking, making small structures of wood or clay, or floral arranging are some good options
Other ways to use sensory stimulation is to involve seniors with dementia in house care. By dusting important photographs, cooking familiar meals, or folding laundry, many seniors can process memories and associate chores with productive, positive emotions through sensory stimulation. Someone who is incapable of making a whole meal may be able to wash colorful vegetables. Exercise is a sensory stimulus that can utilize specific music, physical routines, or machines (or all three) to bring up positive memories and feelings. Exercise also releases endorphins into the bloodstream, which makes people feel calm and happy.
Each senior will like and need different kinds of sensory stimulation to truly maintain happiness and help their brains slow down dementia, but it is absolutely worth it for caregivers to try to support this process at home.
Alzheimer Society Canada. Living with dementia: Late stage. Alzheimer.ca. Available at http://www.alzheimer.ca/en/Living-with-dementia/Day-to-day-living/Staying-active/Late-stage. Retrieved August 7, 2016.
Baker, Roger, Holloway, Jane, Holtkamp, Chantal C.M., Larsson, Anita, Hartman, Lindy C., Pearce, Rebecca, et al. (September 2003). Effects of multisensory stimulation for people with dementia. Abstract. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 43(5): 465-477. Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2648.2003.02744.x/full. Retrieved August 7, 2016.
Wegerer, Jennifer. (January 23, 2014). How Sensory Stimulation Can Help Alzheimer’s Patients. Alzheimers.net. Available at http://www.alzheimers.net/2014-01-23/sensory-stimulation-alzheimers-patients/. Retrieved August 7, 2016.