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Sensory stimulation: How it helps people living with dementia

6 min read

Sensory stimulation is well known to provide positive benefits for individuals living with dementia.

As dementia progresses a person’s life may become more restricted and often their senses are under stimulated.

Gentle sensory stimulation, perhaps through lighting, smells or touch can be soothing and calming. But it also can help with socialising, enabling people to communicate and engage with others.

There are many different types of sensory stimulation so in this post we will explore what it is and how it helps people with dementia.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

  • Sensory stimulation involves using the senses, including smell, touch, taste, hearing and vision.
  • Despite having dementia, these senses can still function but are often under stimulated.
  • You can access sensory stimulation activities in a daycare centre, residential homes, or a sensory stimulation cafe. 
  • Carers can also plan activities at home and personalise them for greater benefit.
dementia and sensory stimulation (1)

What is sensory stimulation for dementia?

As dementia progresses individuals can become increasingly withdrawn from the world. 

Without engaging with society, as they were accustomed to, their senses become understimulated. 

There are many reasons why people with dementia struggle with day-to-day interactions. Changes in the brain cause cognitive function to decline.

The memory centre of the brain is often affected most significantly, and it becomes hard to access old memories or store new ones.

This can prove disorientating for a person needing dementia care. It is also ‌upsetting for them when those around them become exasperated at having to repeat themselves.

Outpacing in dementia

For example you may have heard the question, what does outpacing mean in dementia?

Outpacing in dementia is when a person with dementia is presented with too much information, and too quickly for them to process.

Faced with these types of obstacles for social interaction, individuals often stop taking part in activities. They spend more time alone and miss out on enjoying friendships and new experiences.

tips for dementia carers (1)

Feeling anxious about social situations

Experiencing cognitive dysfunction can lead to people living with dementia to feel quite fearful and anxious about life in general. 

Because their memory is fading, and they cannot process information like they used to, the world around them stops making sense, which can be pretty scary. 

This feeling of fear and anxiety often leads to people with dementia withdrawing from general life. 

While it is more safe for them to be in an environment that they recognise and can recall, that has a downside.

elderly care and sensory stimulation

Why we need sensory stimulation

Human beings respond to external stimuli. We live in synergy with the world and people around us. 

Interactions with people, animals, and things stimulate our brains. 

This stimulation often makes us feel good. Our brains make ‘happy chemicals’ when we interact positively with people and animals and things. 

Sensory stimulation and happy chemicals

When people with dementia remove themselves from much of this stimulus, a part of what makes us happy or excited also goes away. 

Their brain doesn’t have the opportunity to make these happy chemicals as often.

Sensory stimulation aims to reintroduce stimulation into the life of a person living with dementia, in a safe and ‌appropriate way. 

Enjoying using one’s senses and experiencing that crucial external stimuli creates more of these happy chemicals.

Essentially, sensory stimulation can make people feel more alive and connected to the world by using their human senses.

sensory stimulation with lights

What senses can be stimulated?

Here’s a list of what senses can be stimulated and how:

Sight

This can encompass anything a person can see. Sensory activities for sight often include lighting or visual projections onto walls of specific sensory tables.

It might also include handling bright colour swatches, hanging beautiful art on the walls, or admiring flowers. 

Sound

Hearing is the last sense to leave us, and appreciation of music can be a lifelong love. Favourite pieces of music for dementia can prove soothing and relaxing for people with dementia.

Singing along with favourite songs is a great way to stimulate people with dementia.

Songs from the past can bring back many memories. Group singalongs are particularly helpful and enjoyable for people with dementia.

Dementia radio stations and dementia TV can also be a great help.

dementia and food memories

Taste

Stimulating taste buds with a variety of foods can be very beneficial for individuals living with dementia.

Food is always a great way to evoke memories and start conversations about past experiences.

Perhaps trying a traditional flavour or type of ice cream can bring back fond memories of trips to the seaside, or long summer days.

As a carer it may be difficult to get your loved one to vary their diet and introduce unusual flavours so it may take a few attempts.

Perhaps try introducing it as part of an activity or game, on a few different occasions so there’s no pressure to participate.

bread baking for dementia

Touch

We often forget how important the sense of touch is. Plus the strength of emotional response it can bring.

Tactile activities can be great for those living with dementia, and there’s so many to choose from.

For example a hand massage with a scented lotion can be soothing, or completing puzzles or jigsaws can combine hand and eye coordination.

Baking bread is becoming increasingly popular for sensory stimulation.

Kneading and rolling bread, combined with the smell of yeast and fresh bread, brings back so many fond memories of freshly baked bread at home or from childhood.

Stroking or petting furry animals is another great way to stimulate the sense of touch.

Visiting petting zoos often make visits to day centres or animal centres may offer dementia-friendly activities.

Smell

Smell is a very evocative sense and can remain stimulating for a long time. 

Games such as ‘guess the smell’ can be fun, using herbs, spices and essential oils to create a palette of scents. A favourite old perfume or cologne might help to bring back recollections. 

Even the smell of cooking can be very evocative of happy memories.

Aromatherapy is particularly effective at helping induce feelings of calm and relaxation.

How does sensory stimulation help someone with dementia?

People living with dementia often find the condition affects how they communicate.

Not remembering things can make people withdraw and lose confidence. 

It can also, as the disease progresses, lead to depression, anxiety, hallucinations or delusions, and disturbed sleep. 

Sensory stimulation can help to enrich the daily life of a person with dementia and boost wellbeing 

By enriching the senses it can also help in maintaining a calm mood. Which in turn, enables them to stay connected to those around them. 

Socialising and communicating is easier when you are calm and relaxed. 

There’s more here on what are the early signs of dementia.

caring for someone with dementia

Sensory stimulation group activities

Sensory stimulation can be a great group activity for those with dementia. 

Often the task itself, such as needing bread or stirring baking ingredients in a bowl prompts communication.

It may start as asking questions about the task at hand, or commenting on the instructions. 

Then this might progress to asking questions of each other, and sharing memories or recollections.

Group activities can be hard to organise if a person lives alone so it is worthwhile looking into day centres or community groups for people living with dementia.

sensory stimulation activities with grandchildren

Intergenerational sensory activities

Watching or joining in activities with young children is a fantastic way to stimulate one’s senses.

Children are naturally curious and communicative asking all sorts of questions, so just by being in their presence your loved one will feel the benefit.

Here’s some child friendly sensory-based activities you could try:

  • Baking
  • Arts and craft
  • Potting seeds and light gardening
  • Reading stories together
  • Listening to music and singing songs
dementia diagnosis

Why does sensory stimulation help dementia? 

A really important benefit of sensory stimulation is that it can help to recall happy and positive memories. 

These memories then create positive emotional states that boost wellbeing. 

In a happier emotional state, people are more open to communication and interaction, providing a positive feedback loop.

Sensory stimulation’s impact on our brain

In more technical terms, sensory stimulation helps to ‘light up’ parts of our brains.

Every time we interact with something or someone, a pathway in our brain becomes bright with electrical activity. 

As dementia progresses, it becomes harder to respond to the stimulation of the outside world. It may become overwhelming, or a person may struggle to understand what is happening and why. 

At this point, a person with dementia may become withdrawn from daily life, and find that their brain is no longer being ‘lit up’ from sensory activities as much as before. 

Sensory stimulation aims to light up these pathways once more, in a safe and pleasant environment. 

Even something as simple as enjoying the smell of a favourite meal being cooked, or a favourite perfume, can light up those receptors in the brain,

types of dementia

Advice for carers

If you’re caring for someone living with dementia then you’ll know that there can be good days and fewer good days.

Not every activity you try is going to be successful. Things that work one day may not work another day.

Try not to put pressure on yourself or your loved one to have a great experience every time. 

Interspersing regular sensory-based activities throughout the day can sometimes work better than having set times.

The more you personalise the activity and the timing the more enjoyable it will be and the greater benefit it will have for your loved one’s wellbeing.

If you found this guide useful then you might like to read our reviews of the best books on dementia