Alive is a UK charity that provides a variety of fun, stimulating, interactive activity and engagement sessions for older people in care and in the community. We also train and coach care-givers to improve their own knowledge, skills and confidence in activities
I’d like to share some stories and experiences about one of the activities we run called multi-sensory enrichment. These sessions are an opportunity for people with later stage dementia to explore their senses in a safe, relaxing space.
From our own experiences and from talking to care-givers, we understood the heart-felt need and frustrations for people longing to find a window into their loved one’s diminishing world and how hopeless this can sometimes feel. By helping and encouraging sensory exploration, we can gain moments of connection and provide opportunities for our loved ones to reconnect with the world.
We use a room or space where we can create an atmosphere of calm and tranquillity. We often use music (sometimes personally meaningful to the person) or soundscapes to set the scene or videos from YouTube. Sometimes, we have a particular theme or environment we wish to explore or create such as a walk in the woods or a seaside reminiscence and we use props and objects to help create an experience. Sometimes, it’s about connecting people to what may be strong memories for them. One gentleman’s well-being was increased dramatically by using an old oily rag, he could smell and feel. In his younger years, he previously loved tinkering with cars.
I always start by reminding myself to have no expectations of what might arise, so then I’m always grateful and surprised. A person who is in the later stages of their dementia journey, lives much more from a feeling state of being, so they need to feel that I am there for them, 100%. They are safe.
I always meet people eye to eye at or below their level on their dominant side (usually right-side for most), my voice tonality – calm and relaxing, the speed of my voice – slow. I offer a gentle reassuring touch. I want to give people a sense of instinctual control over our time together.
I usually start with a slow hand massage on both sides of each hand. The sense of another person’s undivided loving care frequently heightens sensation generally and sometimes cognition. If you bring your awareness and presence to these moments, people feel that you are there with them. You may need to get close to enter their world.
We then introduce a variety of sensory stimuli. It is important to give people time to feel the stimuli, sense the sensation and respond. We need to suspend our concept of time and enter a slower pace. Look for subtle cues and reactions to gauge whether this stimulus is okay for the person in this moment.
What is always surprising, is what works. This is as individual as people themselves. I would encourage people to experiment with a variety of smells, textures, tastes, visuals, sounds and vibration. Soft and cuddly generally works well, as do things connected to nature e.g. sounds of the birds, smells of flowers and pets.
One blind gentleman was taken by the sensation of squeezing different kinds of stress balls. Just prior to this he was humming a song. We used the rhythm of the song to squeeze the balls in time to this rhythm. For this gentleman, this was enjoyable, fun and in this moment – meaningful.
Another lady loved feeling samples of old fabric materials. Another gent liked bubble wrap, another lady liked the texture of rough cardboard. And this is just touch…
We also use some touchscreen technology using suitable apps.
As people are living longer, more people are going to live into the more advanced stages of dementia. I encourage care-givers, loved ones, relatives and friends of people living with dementia to plan for this ahead of time. If possible, establish with the person, the things that engage their senses in a positive, nurturing way and keep a record. Think about the senses in terms of their memories and what may help them to stay connected. They may well provide glimpses and moments of genuine joy during times that can be difficult and trying.
I hope this blog might provide some inspiration for readers. In my experience, there are ways to engage when we think of our world from a sensory perspective and are willing to experiment with hope, curiosity and love.