Originally used in Europe, sensory stimulation has gained prominence in the United States as a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. Using everyday objects, therapists can trigger memories and emotions in seniors who are suffering from a severe cognitive decline and have lost their ability to connect with the world around them.
What is Sensory Stimulation?
Sensory stimulation uses everyday objects to arouse one or more of the five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch), with the goal of evoking positive feelings. Developed in Europe in the 1960’s, this therapy originally was designed to help people with learning disabilities. It was a way for them to explore a stimulating and safe environment that provided enjoyable, age-appropriate activities.
Since then, the therapy has become widely used to treat other conditions, including autism; chronic pain; brain injuries; Alzheimer’s; and other forms of dementia.
How Sensory Stimulation Affects Alzheimer’s
As Alzheimer’s progresses, a senior’s ability to communicate and perform everyday activities declines. Giving these seniors means to express themselves, when they can no longer do so with words, can help them relax and feel safe. This can improve their mood, self-esteem and, in turn, their well-being.
By drawing attention to a particular item, sensory stimulation encourages memories and responses of seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s. For instance, art or photos can trigger memories and emotions for seniors who no longer speak. A senior who has not expressed a word in months might suddenly smile or want to pick up a pencil and draw. That art form eventually can become a means for the senior to communicate, either through personal works of art or simply by sharing the experience.
How Sensory Stimulation Engages Seniors With Alzheimer’s
Everyday Sensory Cues
The Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) explains that sensory stimulation works best when it uses familiar, everyday objects and focuses on one sense at a time.
Good sensory cues include:
- Familiar foods and clothing
- Natural materials, such as flowers
- Sensory-rich materials, such as wood grains and grooming tools
In practice, the item is introduced to the person with Alzheimer’s, and the therapist provides reassuring verbal and non-verbal cues to stimulate a response. The CAOT gives an example of the smell of toast in the morning. A therapist presents the toast, removing all other stimuli, asks questions related to the toast and might even help the senior bring the toast to his or her mouth.
Sensory Stimulation Activities
Activities involved in sensory stimulation are often linked to interests the person had prior to dementia, and can help build a connection to everyday life. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, sensory stimulation activities might include:
- Talking and reading aloud to the senior
- Giving a hand massage
- Providing a change of scenery by taking the senior outdoors
- Taking a short walk
- Bringing in objects the senior does not normally have around, such as sand, seashells or other items.
Depending on how the senior reacts, the therapist might alter the activity or switch to a different sense to find the stimuli that is going to inspire a response.
Sensory Stimulation Helps Seniors with Alzheimer’s Connect
Sensory stimulation is intended to bring enjoyment to seniors with dementia, reduce their anxiety and depression, and increase their social interaction. Activities are aimed at seniors, but they are still shared with a therapist, caregiver or loved one. Those shared experiences and memories can help bring seniors back to a time that they remember fondly, which can help them feel meaningful again.
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