How sensory stimulation helps people with dementia

Even though there is no known cure for dementia, sensory stimulation can promote patients’ quality of life with the uplifting power of music, the evocative scent of cinnamon and other sensory comforts.

Dementia is a syndrome that erodes memory and cognitive function and is often found in the elderly.

Preserving and promoting quality of life for people living with this condition is a key focus of dementia care, and sensory stimulation can help to rekindle memories and provide comfort.

“Dementia manifests in many different ways, and the rate at which the condition progresses varies from person to person,” Somerset West Livewell Village quality of life manager Riette Schoonbee said. The centre provides specialised dementia care.

“What we have found is that as the condition becomes more advanced, many people seem to retreat into their own world if they are not kept engaged and stimulated.

“The five senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing – are the key to keeping people living with dementia in touch with their surroundings and they also seem to find many of the sensory activities comforting,” she says.

The Livewell Villages in Bryanston and Somerset West have incorporated this into their philosophy of care. They have developed the environments and programme of activities in consultation with occupational therapists and others to enhance quality of life.

Most of the residents are in their 80s or 90s. Extraordinary response to music “What we have found is that many of them, for example, have an extraordinary response to music – particularly music from the 1940s and 1950s when they were young," Schoonbee said.

“We hold a number of musical activities, which I particularly enjoy, having originally trained as a music teacher.

“Our music appreciation sessions are a great favourite with our residents and when we play a song that stirs up happy memories for someone, it is remarkable to see their reaction.

“Some will get up and dance, and you can catch a glimpse of their younger self as they sway and twirl in time with the melody.

“Music lures them out of their shell and stimulates memory,” Schoonbee says.

“Residents also have an opportunity to make music in group sessions, such as drumming, which is lots of fun.

“They love ‘music reminiscence’ where they discuss fond memories evoked by songs from years gone by. Some of our residents still play piano or guitar, and excel in ballroom dancing.” Scent is an ally Scent is another powerful ally in stimulating people with dementia.

The perfume of roses, lavender and aromas of herbs that are planted abundantly in the Livewell Villages’ gardens are not only a sensory delight, they also appear to inspire residents through recalling pleasant memories from yesteryear.

“A crushed sprig of rosemary, sage or thyme can bring a twinkle to the eye and a wistful smile of remembrance – even though sometimes the person is either unable to put into words what they are recalling, or prefer to keep their own counsel about what has tickled them in memory,” Schoonbee says. Taste sparks memories A taste of cinnamon sparks memories of childhood, melkkos, pancakes, pumpkin fritters, sago pudding and festive tidings among the residents, who transport listening carers and companions with tales from their childhoods.

“Furry friends, including residents’ longstanding four-legged companions who often make the move to Livewell with their owners, bring tactile comfort that is often particularly soothing for people with dementia,” Schoonbee says.

“Residents love the warmth and softness of our pet rabbits, Mellow and Mint, and the little dogs are much loved and spoilt by the people living here.

“We also have Lucy the house cat, Dino the giant tortoise and Charlie, the black and white Great Dane who wears a scarf around his neck.

“The residents delight in watching these animals, as well as the ducks and chickens wandering around the gardens and the wild birds and squirrels in the trees.”

Families are invited to join in activities and outings, and when they are unable to attend they can still enjoy these experiences vicariously as the residents’ companions share photographs.