Sensory Stimulation in Dementia Care

May 9, 2022
fabric swatches used for sensory stimulation in dementia care

We all use our senses to learn. We process what we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch ~ and it stimulates us. Our brains receive messages containing information about what we experience, and this is a good thing, especially if you are someone with dementia.

I have worked with hundreds of individuals with memory challenges and, sadly, they are often discounted or overlooked – as “patients” or people who can no longer feel, no longer express joy, or no longer enjoy life. The question is, are they given the chance, the opportunity, to experience life in this way, or are they simply written off?

My view is that no matter where someone is on their dementia journey, they can receive information (watch for a future blog post on this topic), know of your presence, know how you make them feel, and respond to their environment.

When I consult with a family, I often introduce various strategies and/or activities aimed to increase the quality of life of the individual with dementia (IWD) and to reduce what we refer to as “behavioral expressions” that can occur as a result of an unmet need.

About six or seven years ago, I was asked by a family to come up with some ideas to engage their mother who had a form of dementia. After meeting the mother, I left thinking I wanted to recommend something for her that dealt primarily with her senses of touch and sight.

What can I recommend that is not run-of-the-mill?

How can I be creative here and tap into something their mother would really enjoy?

I thought, and thought, and thought some more.

I was asking myself questions like, “What is fun or interesting to touch?” “What is pretty to look at?” Whatever I came up with, it had to be safe, portable, and stimulating, all in one.

Then somehow it came to me: fabric swatches. Yes, fabric swatches, and I needed a lot of them, so who did I call? Of course, my friend the interior designer!

Over the years I have done several home renovations and with that often came new window coverings, reupholstering a chair here or a couch there and I recalled how beautiful the fabric swatches were. In fact, I would often go to the design store well in advance of my appointment just so I could look through the hundreds of swatches – purely for the joy of it, the aesthetic of it. I thought to myself, if these swatches can engender such good feelings in me, I bet they can in others as well.

So, I reached out to my friend and asked her what the design center did with all those fabric swatches (for couches, pillows, drapes, etc.) once they became outdated, and she told me that, unfortunately, they throw them away. I asked to swing by and see if there were any available that I could take off their hands and the answer was a resounding “Yes!” The end result was an enormous bag filled with colorful and textural swatches, some so lovely that I can barely describe them. There were red velvets, others with raised dots, some were sheer with stripes, others heavy, yet oh-so soft.

I was thrilled, but of course had no idea if my idea would resonate with this particular client – or any other, for that matter, but I felt compelled to give it a try.

Because we all have different tastes, some IWDs are attracted to the lighter, airy, more feminine patterns, while others prefer the heavy velvet types. The raised dots repel others, while only blues are preferable to someone else. It’s absolutely fascinating to see what different people are drawn to. For some it’s more of a visual attraction, others tactile, and still others, both. I was with a woman only in her 60’s with Alzheimer’s a few weeks ago and I was sure she would gravitate toward the sheer fabrics, but for her it wasn’t about the look or the touch, it was solely about how neatly she could fold and pile the stack ~ over and over again; it made her feel quite accomplished ~ as it should.

The purpose of this activity is not to keep someone busy, although it may for a period of time, but instead it is to stimulate and engage the IWD. The goal is for them to experience something that looks and feels new, once again sending these sensory messages to the brain. There is a sense of wonder, of joy, of genuine interest in these simple pieces of fabric. Other benefits of this sort of intentional stimulation can be an improvement of mood, socialization and participation.

Individuals with dementia are not their disease, therefore,  stimulating activities do not treat the disease; they treat/help the person with the disease – as they are still very much there. This form of engagement is known to decrease depression and anxiety in individuals with dementia ~ and with no downside or side effects.  

In the end, for me, it’s all about the quality of life for the individual with dementia; what lights them up, engages them, makes them happy ~ even if for a short while.

Families and communities need a toolkit of various activities to try out, and then try out again. What might interest someone one day, may not on the next. We, as professionals in this space, need to be wildly creative ~ as well as patient and ever-so mindful in our approach.

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