Feeling Connection: Engaging the Senses in Dementia Care

Why Does Sensory Stimulation Work?

If complex speech is no longer understood sensory stimulation is the simplest form of information gathering and processing. It is ideal for working with persons living with dementia in the later stages because it allows for information processing that removes the cognitive overlay leaving a person with sensation alone. Smell, taste and touch, particularly, require little interpretation to be fully appreciated. You may even notice a person with dementia naturally gravitate towards tactile stimulation by exploring the fabric of their clothing or the smoothness of the table in front of them. Additionally, impaired vision or hearing can cause a person to have a lessened interest in their environment. Media that stimulates two senses at the same time can be particularly engaging for someone with reduced sensory abilities.

The Goal

The goal of multisensory work is to stimulate. It can evoke memories and provide links to a person’s past identity. It is through these links that connections are made and a sense of belonging is felt and maintaining connection is essential to well-being in dementia care.

Sensory Stimulating Activities

Types of sensory stimulation include: aromatherapy, massage, handling objects simply to experience their texture or smell, tasting, hearing noises and engagement with light or movement. Pleasure may still be derived from looking at pictures or forming visual observations of movement or color. Items that may be helpful in providing sensory engagement include texture boards, fabrics and scarves, sensory blankets, music, rain sticks, shaving cream, rocking chairs and sand trays.

Sensory Art Making

As an art therapist, I often use sensory projects with my clients. Being creative releases meaning. In sensory art making, we start with something small and meaning emerges. The experience of feeling clay, for example, may connect people with ideas in their minds that have yet to surface. Some projects I use to provide sensory art experiences include:
  • Finger painting which is more sensual than using a paintbrush
  • Dropping paint onto wet paper and allowing it to transform into something more visually enticing than forming color forming on paper
  • Clay work, without using tools for cutting and scoring, because working with ones hands emphasizes the tactile quality of the materials

Learn More

Click here for more ideas on incorporating sensory activities into your programming. For more information on creativity and aging see the following articles: “Why Arts in Aging by Katharine Houpt, and Dancing Through Dementia: What is Dance/Movement Therapy by Erica Hornthal.   Thank you to llamnudds for the colorful photo.  Thanks to Renee Bober for editing this post.

8 Comments

  • Erica

    Great article! Way to spread the word!

  • Melissa Buckles Haley

    I really enjoyed this article and learned something new! Thanks for sharing!

  • Anne

    Excellent article Christy!

  • Leah

    I have a question: I love the idea of using clay, but every time I’ve tried it with advanced Alzheimer’s clients, they immediately try to put it in their mouths. For this reason, we used Play-Doh or cookie dough…any tips on how to either make it unappealing to eat, or better/safe alternatives to traditional (toxic/icky tasting) modeling clay?

  • Christy

    Leah, I too have run into that issue. Similar to your use of cookie dough, I frequently use a clay made from salt, water, cornstarch and flour so that it can be safely ingested.

    I’m not sure if it’s the case in your situation, but many nursing homes and day centers have the dining room double as an art room. This can be confusing for clients particularly if the art activity directly follows a mealtime. If this is the case, patience and a vigilant eye may allow for redirection to a more appropriate use of the clay.

    While they may not provide the same amount of catharsis as clay does, there are many alternative materials to make 3 dimensional sculptures from: pipe cleaners, wire, aluminum foil and paper mache to name a few.

    Hope that helps!

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