Individuals with dementia need sensory stimulation activities to have a full quality of life. Sensory stimulation activities engage an individual’s attention and focus, enabling them to remain connected to the surrounding environment. By participating in these activities, people with dementia can maintain their relationships with loved ones and slow cognitive decline. Let’s get familiar with sensory activities and how they benefit individuals with dementia. (1)
What is Sensory Stimulation?
Sensory stimulation activates one or more of the senses like smell, touch, hearing, vision, or taste. A sensory exercise can be as straightforward as listening to music or as interactive as tasting different flavors. Some sensory activities encourage problem solving, while others are to simply be enjoyed.
The human brain functions using a complicated network of electrical impulses. This network responds to internal and external stimulation. Brain scans show how different parts of the brain light up depending on the kind of sensory stimulation it receives. Stimulation is the key to keeping the brain engaged and active. (2)
According to the National Institutes of Aging, “treating behavioral symptoms can make people with Alzheimer’s more comfortable and makes things easier for caregivers.” Sensory stimulation Here is a review of the different senses and the nerves they trigger: (3)
- Seeing (visual) utilizes the optic nerve. As light passes through the eyes it’s converted to a nerve signal, via the optic nerve into the brain.
- Smelling (olfactory) uses the sensory nerves in the nose and mouth. Olfactory sensory neurons in the nose and mouth relay messages to the brain when something is smelled or tasted.
- Touching (tactile) incorporates various nerve endings located throughout the body. These receptor cells transmit signals to the brain, where those signals are interpreted as vibration, temperature, pressure, or pain.
- Tasting (gustatory) taps into receptor cells in taste buds. These cells send impulses to the brain where they translate into what we identify as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory.
- Hearing (auditory) utilizes the auditory nerve. As sound vibrations hit the eardrums in the inner ear, they translate into electrical signals to the brain.
How Does Dementia Affect the Senses in Senior Patients?
For most of us, stimulation comes in the form of daily activities. Going to work, school, and performing daily chores offers enough stimulation to keep our brains agile. For individuals with dementia, however, the illness isolates them from daily activities. In the beginning stages of dementia, memory loss can trigger fear and confusion, causing individuals to withdraw from others. This withdrawal limits sensory stimulation. (4)
Dementia slowly reduces the electrical activity within the brain. As the disease progresses, individuals with dementia experience significant impairments with memory, communication and mobility. The decline results in further withdrawal and isolation, limiting opportunities for sensory stimulation. As a result, individuals with dementia require deliberate sensory stimulation activities to delay the progression of dementia. (5)
How Does Sensory Stimulation Help Dementia Patients?
Losing cherished memories and forgetting loved ones is a distressing experience for everyone involved, but most especially for the individual with dementia.
A literature review published in the journal The Gerontologist found that sensory stimulation was an “effective non-pharmacological treatment” for dementia. (6)
Sensory activities can help recall positive memories and emotions by triggering memories and activating the brain. By participating in sensory stimulation, individuals with dementia may improve their communication or problem solving skills. (7)
Other benefits of sensory activities include:
- Increased social interaction
- Increased group engagement
- Boosts alertness and focus
- Calms and stabilized mood
- Prevents wandering and rummaging
According to the National Institutes of Aging, sensory stimulation can reduce the behavioral symptoms associated with dementia, making them “more comfortable and makes things easier for caregivers.” (1)
Six Sensory Stimulation Activities
Stimulation sensory activities for people with dementia can be simple, using objects that are easily available. What matters is the individual’s ability to participate in the games and their interests. Dementia can reduce an individual’s attention span, so any short activity for dementia patients is recommended. (7)
1 Organize and Sort Socks Activity
Organizing and sorting socks is an excellent sensory activity, especially for individuals who may wander or rummage. Sorting socks with different colors and textures stimulates the brain using touch, vision, and incorporating colors and textures. What’s more, sorting socks is a comforting and familiar task — an activity that most people have performed in their lives. Keep the socks distinct in color and print to avoid frustrating the individual.
2 Animal Therapy
Interacting with an animal triggers many senses, like vision, touch, and smell. The texture of fur, feathers, or the movement of fish offer a relaxing and therapeutic way to introduce external stimulation. Animals also have a calming influence, providing comfort and warmth. Individuals with dementia may have had a favorite pet, and animal therapy can uncover fond memories.
3 Play an Instrument
If there’s no musical instrument on hand to play music, an object will do. For example, patting or tapping a pillow can simulate playing a drum. Have the individual try to copy a rhythm or combination. Playing “drums” to a song helps stimulate the sense of hearing and touch. Also, drumming to follow a rhythm enhances focus and memory.
When it comes to painting and art therapy, a person with dementia may not have the capacity to create something complex. However, it’s not the end result that’s most important. What matters most is the process. Mixing a variety of colors and practicing different strokes helps utilize vision and touch. Forgo small canvases and use large rolls of butcher paper instead.
5 Create Shapes with Play-Doh or Clay
The tactile stimulation that comes from molding and forming Play-Doh helps people with dementia reduce their restlessness. Encourage the creation of shapes and familiar forms by asking them to copy an object like a cube or an apple. Incorporating the use of molds and stamps also fosters creativity and fine motor skills.
6 Make a Flower Arrangement
Flowers are a sensory goldmine. The varied textures, colors, and scents uncover memories and trigger brain activity. Making a flower arrangement should include smelling the flowers and feeling the petals and stems. After the arrangement is made, a thing of beauty comes to fruition. There is a sense of accomplishment afterwards which makes this a great option among Alzheimer’s sensory activities.
When engaging in sensory activities with dementia patients, caregivers should watch for nonverbal cues of boredom or restlessness. Choose activities that match the individual’s level of ability. Avoid using sharp objects and always closely supervise the individual.
Although the goal is to stimulate their senses, it’s also vital to create a sense of accomplishment. Finishing a task and having something to show for it in the end — like sorted socks or a flower arrangement — boosts self-confidence. For people with dementia, sensory stimulation activities can improve their quality of life.
Elite Care at Home specializes in in-home care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Our caregivers are well versed in sensory and cognitive exercises to help your loved one who is struggling with dementia. If you’d like to learn more about our private care options, contact us at Elite Care at Home today.
1. Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet
2. Subjective Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Complaints and Brain MRI Biomarkers in the MEMENTO Cohort
3. Your 8 Senses
4. Dementia Symptoms & Causes
5. How Dementia Progresses
6. Light Intervention Effects on Circadian Activity Rhythm Parameters and Nighttime Sleep in Dementia Assessed by Wrist
Actigraphy: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis
7. Sensory and Memory Stimulation as a Means to Care For Individuals with Dementia in Long-Term Care Facilities