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Older adult with dementia stacks colorful circular blocks as a sensory stimulation exercise.

Dementia and sensory stimulation are widely considered by experts to be directly linked. Let’s take a deep dive into the correlation between the two and discuss how they relate to each other:

The world around us has a lot to offer. It’s a beautiful place filled with mountain ranges that touch the skies and ocean waters that are home to an abundance of life. There are wonderful people, too — complex humans with unimaginable talent and an unbelievable capacity for good.

It is through our senses that we connect with all of that majestic wonder. As we age, this connection may grow more tenuous as we experience declines in visual acuity, auditory function, mobility, and cognitive function. As a result, older adults often find themselves experiencing strong feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

They grow angry, irritable, and maddeningly lonely.

It’s understandable, though. When we can’t experience life the way that it was meant to be experienced — through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch — we’re bound to reach new levels of frustration.

And that’s why the importance of sensory stimulation for dementia can’t be underestimated.

Because one thing that all of our senses have in common is that they’re directly linked to certain areas of our brains. For example, sight and sound — while vastly different — are both processed in the same way: the visual cortex performs a bit of a magic trick (called temporal recalibration,) altering our sense of time to synchronize our joint perception of sound and vision.

The gustatory nerves in our taste buds and the olfactory nerves in our noses transform non-descript molecules into complex tastes and smells, respectively.

Nerve endings that have the metaphorical power to set our skin on fire transform pressure and temperature into sensations we feel — and these sensations go a long way in keeping us out of harm’s way.

But what is sensory stimulation and why is it good for dementia?

While the term “sensory stimulation” might seem relatively straightforward (the activation of one or more senses), it encompasses a broad spectrum of possibilities.

In short: Sensory stimulation is brain stimulation.

And when used to treat patients with dementia, it can be used strategically to trigger one or more of their senses and evoke feelings of warmth, positivity, and comfort.

It’s a viable alternative to pharmacological interventions that can help improve quality of life in profound ways.

The Benefits of Sensory Stimulation for Dementia

As our brains and senses are directly linked, a decline in sensory function is almost inevitable for older adults living with dementia.

They might have trouble navigating their surroundings and judging distances. They might mistake one object for another, or they might struggle to keep up in casual conversation.

The result is anger, fear, and frustration.

And that’s why sensory stimulation has become such a powerful tool for caretakers: because it helps patients feel more relaxed, secure, and connected — and several studies back this up, showing that regular engagement of the senses reduces agitation, improves communication, and decreases restlessness.

When we consider this level of importance, it’s clear that any person responsible for the care of an individual living with dementia should find ways to incorporate sensory stimulation into daily routines.

So, what are sensory activities for dementia patients?

Here’s a short list:

  • Touch Therapy: Every object has a unique texture, temperature, shape, and feel that can be used as a form of therapy — and the list of things you can use to provide tactile stimulation for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia is long and varied. Sorting objects based on shape and color is a great way to practice motor skills.
  • Music Therapy: Music Therapy is one of the most effective forms of positive engagement for individuals living with forms of dementia. It encourages participation and interaction on multiple levels, like singing, dancing, or simply keeping rhythm by clapping along with the beat.
  • Color Therapy: Colors can have real effects on people. Pigments, hues, values, tints, and shades — they all influence moods and behaviors in both subtle and overt ways. Put extra thought into the use of color when caring for older adults.
  • Culinary Engagement: Cooking engages the senses in a variety of ways. The smells can transport you to another time and place while the act of kneading dough calms anxious minds and hands.
  • Aroma Therapy: Scents such as peppermint, lavender, and rosemary are well-researched and found to be greatly beneficial in reducing agitation and boosting appetite. Try introducing these scents to the environment using diffusers, natural lotions, or bath oils.

Want to continue exploring the benefits of sensory stimulation for dementia? Learn more about our sensory stimulation activities!

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