Providing appropriate sensory stimulation for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia has been shown in studies to decrease agitation and restlessness, as well as improve sleep. These symptoms are very common in most forms of dementia, and certainly in people with Alzheimer’s, so sensory stimulation translates into improved quality of life for everyone in a care partnership. More recent investigations indicate that appropriate sensory stimulation can actually repair the brain and make it grow.
The Brainpaths® device in the picture at the top of this page is a wonderful example of a sensory stimulation activity; in fact, it is about as close to pure sensory stimulation as you can get. More than 3000 nerve receptors in each finger tip are excited when the grooves and bumps on the Brainpath are traced. This sends a message directly to the somatosensory cortex(primary somatosensory cortex) in the brain. ( The somatosensory cortex is labeled Sensory homunculus in the image below) The somatosensory cortex is that part of the cortex that accepts and “translates” information coming in from the touch receptors all over the body. This stimulation improves brain function by creating new neural connections.
Sensory Stimulation and Dementia -Sensory Stimulation is Brain Stimulation
The one big thing that all of our senses have in common is the brain. Our eyes and ears respectively turn light waves and sound waves into sensory impressions. The gustatory nerves in our taste buds and the olfactory nerves in our noses turn certain molecules into tastes and smells. The nerve endings in our skin and almost every other part of our body turn pressure and temperature into sensations we “feel”. But we don’t hear and see and taste with those nerves. It is our brain that turns environmental stimulation into sensation. Sensory stimulation is brain stimulation.
*The area of the brain labeled “Sensory homunculus” in the accompanying image should more properly read “Somatosensory cortex”, or “Somatosensory homunculus”. This is the area that processes somatosenses, senses of the body. This is what we call the sense of touch, and include pain, pressure, temperature, etc.
Sensory stimulation can be thought, quite simply, to be anything that stimulates one of our senses. It is easy to create a pleasing sensory environment from objects found around the house that will provide an endless variety of stimulation to any and all of the senses. It is through our senses that we derive pleasure. We enjoy viewing art and listening to music. Who can say no to the smell of fresh bread baking in the oven, our the taste of one’s favorite comfort food. A hand or a foot massage are simple ways we derive pleasure from our sense of touch. These sensory experiences give pleasure also to people with dementia.[pullquote]all three sensory stimulation activities… lowered (discomfort) levels… indicating an increase in psychological well being[/pullquote]
Our five senses—and a few more…
We all learned early in our education that we have five senses, which correspond to five sensory organs. But science recognizes as many as twenty-one different senses. The ones everyone knows from early school days are:
- Sight (Visual Stimulation) – The eyes are the organ of sight. Vision is perhaps our most important sense, the one through which we gain most of our information….(Read more >>)
- Hearing (Auditory Stimulation) – Our ears probably provides us with our second most vibrant source of sensory stimulation. (Read more >>)
- Smell (Olfactory Stimulation) – Receptors in our nose provide us with a sense of smell. Some of our strongest memories, our most potent associations, are triggered by odor. (Read more >>)
- Taste (Gustatory Stimulation) – Nerve endings on our tongue allow us to taste what is in our mouths. In many ways taste is the most pleasurable of our senses, depending on how much emphasis one puts on food and eating. (Read more >>)
- Touch (Tactile Stimulation) – Touch receptors are located in our skin, but in many other parts of our bodies as well. Anything touched and anything that touches us can be stimulating. Every solid object has texture, temperature, shape. (Read more >>)
There are two less well-recognized senses that are important to this discussion:
- Proprioceptive Stimulation is closely related to tactile stimulation and is otherwise a little hard to define. It is the sensory feedback that informs us where the parts of our body are and how they are moving. So, a stroll through the forest on a beautiful autumn day would not only involve visual, auditory, and olfactory stimulation, but also plenty of proprioceptive stimulation.
- Vestibular Stimulation, which is related to and dependent on the proprioceptive system. The vestibular system is what gives us balance, allows us to stand and move through space without falling over. It relies on feedback from the visual, auditory, and tactile systems.
A Whole World
Very few activities stimulate only one sense or sense organ; few are beneficial in only a singular way. Furthermore, sensory stimulation for Alzheimer’s is not any different from beneficial sensory stimulation for any of us.
A walk in the woods in the fall when the leaves are changing can be a magnificent visual experience. The variety and the vibrancy of the colors are the first things one notices, but autumn has its own array of smells and sounds. The pungent aroma of decay; the spicy smell of autumn flowers that can differ from the sweeter smell of spring blossoms; leaves crunching under foot; flocks of geese honking as they begin their migration south.
Add to that the exercise and the fresh air and you have a comprehensive activity for one who has dementia as well as for the caregiver who accompanies him. I can’t think of a better way to provide sensory stimulation for Alzheimer’s.
Virtual Reality can Provide Sensory Stimulation for Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Any form of sensory stimulation is a part of the patient’s subjective environment and contributes to that “Good Life.” A walk in the woods or a stroll through a flower-filled meadow may not be a viable option. If you live in the city or the person or people in your care are not adequately mobile, as would be the case in the later stages of the disease, consider a virtual exploration.
Some Products for Sensory Stimulation for Alzheimer’s
Use ALL your senses each day. It’s good for your body — it’s good for your mind.
Sharpen your Senses Cards concentrate on the five senses. Users imagine, reminisce, evaluate, guess, and describe their responses to each question.
Great for large or small adult groups of all ages, or for individuals seeking to improve mental fitness. Facilitator’s booklet gives suggestions and additional activities.
Sharpen Your Senses was developed by author and memory loss specialist Kristin Einberger. The boxed set includes 120 laminated 4 x 6 inch cards in six categories, instructions and facilitator’s booklet.
DVDs are an excellent way to provide sensory stimulation for Alzheimer’s
The Flower Collection is just one of the many nature DVDs and sets that we offer in our store, all will transport the viewer to another time and place. Go beyond: add some other relevant sensory objects for a comprehensive sensory experience. Have blossoms in the room to accompany The Flower Collection set or Spring and Summer. A variety of colorful leaves, pine cones, acorns, and other things found wherever there are trees, make good companion pieces to Winter & Fall. Seashells, natural sponges and dried starfish in a box of sand will nicely compliment a viewing of The Living Ocean.
Our Gel-Filled Sensory Stimulation Pads are designed to calm agitation by providing visual and tactile stimulation. The glitter-filled pads come in a variety of sizes and shapes, including a weighted lap-pad that gives the user a grounded, secure feeling which increases focus and concentration which encourages attention to tasks and activities. There is also a wheelchair tray that provides a soft rest for arms and elbows and encourages exploration while discouraging wandering.
Sensory Stimulation for Alzheimer’s
Environment and other determinants of well being in older people; M Lawton. The Gerontologist. 1983; 23(4), 349-356
- The effect of sensory stimulation activities on the psychological well being of patients witn advanced Alzheimer’s disease; Janet M. Witucki and Renee Samples Twibell. Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen 1997; 12; 10. DOI: 10.1177/153331759701200103
Sensory stimulation in dementia: An effective option for managing behavioural problems; Alistair Burns, Jane Byrne, Clive Ballard,Clive Holmes. BMJ 2002;325(7376):1312 (7 December), doi:10.1136/bmj.325.7376.1312
- Else Lykkeslet, PhD, RN Eva Gjengedal, PhD, RN Torill Skrondal, MS, RN and May-Britt Storjord, BS, RN; Sensory stimulation—A way of creating mutual relations in dementia care. Int J Qual Stud Health Well-being. 2014; 9: 10.3402/qhw.v9.23888.
Related Research: Sensory Stimulation for Alzheimer’s
There is general agreement that sensory stimulation benefits people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It is not a treatment for the disease. It is a treatment for the individual. Experts who study the effects of sensory stimulation on people with dementia and who advocate its use in treating them emphasize quality of life. M Lawton, in a paper published in the Gerontologist, proposes a model for “The Good Life” for elderly people that depends on four inter-related factors:
- behavioral competence
- psychological well-being
- perceived quality of life
- objective environment
In a related study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, Janet M. Witucki and Renee Samples Twibell reported a decrease in psychological discomfort levels in subjects who were in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Participants were fifteen residents of long-term-care facilities who engaged in three sensory stimulation activities. Recorded music that was known to be pleasing to each subject was used as auditory stimulation. Hand massage using lotion provided tactile stimulation, and the sense of smell was stimulated using odors of coffee, orange, cinnamon, chocolate and flowers, each presented individually.
Psychological discomfort was measured before and after each sensory stimulation activity using the Discomfort Scale for Dementias of the Alzheimer Type (DS-DAT), and the results compared. According to the authors of the study, “It can be concluded, however, that all three sensory stimulation activities, as presented with social interaction, lowered DS-DAT levels to a similar extent, indicating an increase in psychological wellbeing of participants during the activities.”
There are two important observations are shared by most of the research. Sensory stimulation for Alzheimer’s is effective treatment for anxiety, depression, and the other behavioral symptoms associated with dementia. The other is that sensory stimulation is without the adverse effects that almost always accompany the drugs often prescribed to treat
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- We see smiles and feel relieved that, even though we can’t make her well, we can make her comfortable and content without resorting to brain fogging drugs or, worse, restraints. Carla