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Image of elderly man and child playing chess—board games are great sensory exercises for the elderly.

Sensory stimulation can be hugely beneficial for older adults. Our senses — taste, touch, smell, sound and sight — serve as our link to the world around us, and they all tell a different story to help us make ‘sense’ of our surroundings: 

Taste

Adults have thousands of taste buds. They react to flavors and affect how we perceive taste. 

Touch

Receptors in our skin pick up on vibrations that tell us how we fit into the physical world.

Smell

Special cells in the nose detect different chemicals in the air that we breathe.

Sound

Tiny hairs in our ears pick up on frequencies of sound.

Sight

Light and color are detected by cells in the retina at the back of the eye.

If anything interferes with the function of these senses, basic daily activities can become more of a struggle — and that’s particularly true for seniors living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. 

These disorders directly impact brain functions, gradually diminishing memory function while simultaneously limiting the five senses.

When this happens, it’s not uncommon for seniors to experience feelings of anxiety, agitation, or even anger. That’s a primary reason why experts say enjoyable activities with a sensory element can really help older adults stay calm and relaxed. 

If you’re caring for someone with memory or cognitive impairment, there’s considerable benefit in regularly incorporating shared sensory activities into your caretaking routine. 

The Benefits of Sensory Stimulation for Elderly

“Sensory stimulation” simply means activating one or more of the five senses. Activities can range from something as simple as listening to a playlist of favorite music to a more complicated activity, such as a “guess the scent” game. Regardless of complexity, effective sensory stimulation activities achieve the same goal: providing a positive sensory experience. 

When we intentionally incorporate sensory stimulation into daily routines, it can help people with dementia recall heart-warming experiences and encourage engagement with others. For example, involving a loved one in the process of making a batch of chocolate chip cookies not only may help them recall fond memories of baking with their children when they were younger, but also gives them an opportunity to interact with others. 

Other benefits might include the following: 

  • Improved communication 
  • Increased levels of concentration and the ability to focus
  • Improved mood, self-esteem, and overall well-being
  • Reduced stress and anxiety

With that in mind, let’s explore five of the best sensory stimulation activities for the elderly:

1. Listen to Music

There’s something soothing about the familiar sounds of running water or your favorite song. Pleasantly stimulating the sense of hearing can lower anxiety and may even improve overall moods.

It’s easy to create several playlists of favorite tunes and sounds for your loved one. Companies like Spotify, Apple and Amazon have vast music collections, making it possible for you to make a natural sounds playlist (waves crashing on a beach or an afternoon rainfall), a collection of classical music, a compilation of favorite songs from your loved one’s youth… the possibilities are endless. 

Music can enhance your caregiving role and your connection with your loved one. Listen to music together, play live instruments (just tapping out the beat with a wooden spoon is one way to interact with music), and sing to bring the music to life.

2. Bake Something Delicious

Baking engages the mind through touch, sight, and smell. You and your loved one can participate in baking together in a number of ways:

  • Browse old recipes and choose something that excites both of you.
  • Get hands-on by measuring, mixing, and kneading. 
  • Take time to smell each ingredient.
  • Taste as you go — and then enjoy the results!

 3. Go on an Adventure

While standard routines certainly have their benefits, sometimes we need to shake things up a bit. A walk through a new city park, a few hours spent at a beach, a slow stroll through a museum…. Any new adventure will encourage movement and exploration while simultaneously engaging the senses through sight, sound, smell, and touch. Seniors can listen to the birds chirp, watch the wind kick up some dust, and feel grass or sand between their toes. There’s really no limit here.

Whatever activity you decide, make sure to bring all the appropriate essentials: sunscreen, water, snacks, and appropriate clothing. And if your loved one has mobility issues, choose adventures that will be safe and easy to navigate. 

 4. Introduce Animal Therapy

Animals can bring enormous amounts of fluffy, snuggly, tail-wagging happiness into our lives. No wonder animal therapy is an exceptional sensory activity for the elderly and people with dementia. Studies show that animal therapy engages the mind in a way that boosts serotonin levels and lowers blood pressure. 

Know someone with a docile dog or gentle cat? Invite them over to spend time with your loved one. You can also check with your local community center to see if animal therapy sessions are offered. Even visiting an animal shelter can bring your loved one in touch with animals — just make sure to call ahead to state the purpose for your visit and schedule an appointment. Animal shelters can be anxiety-inducing (all that barking!), so you’ll want to see if there is a quiet room where vetted dogs and cats can interact with your loved one.  

 5. Make a Puzzle or Play Board Games

Tasks that have a clear beginning, middle, and end can be satisfying to anyone, but particularly to seniors with memory loss. Puzzles and board games can bring this sense of satisfaction to your loved one — plus, they’re fun! 

Shape recognition, gross and fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and social interaction are just a few of the benefits of puzzles and games. Even better, there are so many options. Play games that are already familiar to your loved one, or introduce new puzzles and toys. Take things slow, keep the emphasis on enjoyment, and consider setting a time limit to prevent any puzzle or game activity from becoming overwhelming. 

Want more helpful information about sensory stimulation and its benefits? Learn more about our sensory stimulation activities for the elderly.

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