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How Sensory Stimulation Can Help Alzheimer’s

Jennifer Wegerer
By Jennifer WegererMarch 13, 2017

Originally used as a therapy in Europe, sensory stimulation has gained prominence in the United States as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Using everyday objects, therapists can trigger emotions and memories in seniors who have lost their ability to connect with the world around them.

Sensory Stimulation Therapy

Sensory stimulation uses everyday objects to arouse one or more of the five senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch), with the goal of evoking positive feelings.

Used in Europe since the 1960s, this therapy was originally designed to help people with learning disabilities. It was a way for them to explore a safe, stimulating environment that provided age-appropriate and enjoyable activity.

Since then, the therapy has become widely used to treat other conditions, including:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Autism
  • Brain injuries
  • Chronic pain
  • Other forms of dementia

Ways Sensory Stimulation Can Affect 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 feel safe and relax. This can improve their:

  1. Mood
  2. Self-esteem
  3. Well-being

Additionally, by drawing attention to a particular item, sensory stimulation encourages memories and responses from seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s:

For instance, art or photos can trigger emotions and memories 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.

Ways Sensory Stimulation Engages Seniors

Everyday Sensory Cues

The Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) explains that sensory stimulation works best when it uses familiar 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 nonverbal and 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:

  • Bringing in objects the senior does not normally have around, such as sand, seashells or other items
  • Giving a hand massage
  • Taking a short walk
  • Talking and reading aloud to the senior
  • Providing a change of scenery by taking the senior outdoors

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 is intended to bring enjoyment to seniors with the disease, reduce their anxiety and depression, and increase their social interaction.

Though activities are aimed at seniors, they are still shared with a caregiver, loved one or therapist. Those shared experiences and memories can help bring seniors back to a time that they remember fondly, which can help them feel meaningful again.

Have you tried sensory stimulation with a parent or senior loved one? We’d love to hear more about your experiences in the comments below.

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Jennifer Wegerer

Jennifer Wegerer

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