Why therapeutic sensory support is important for people with dementia

by Joanna Grace, author of Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia

You may have heard people saying they do Sudoku or the crossword daily to keep their grey matter active. Well they are right to do this, but in order to maintain our brains we need to experience a broad range of stimulation, including sensory. Many people in later age end up in environments of limited sensory scope so there are always benefits to bringing in the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch sensations from other places.

For over two decades we have known that multi-sensory environments can benefit people with dementia. In 1998 K.W. Hope reported residents of a dementia care setting responding positively to sensory environments. More recent research confirms that sensory interventions can support people with dementia, Livingston et al (2014) noted reduced agitation in the residents of a dementia care setting following sensory sessions. Baker et al (2001) found that during and immediately after multi-sensory sessions the people he was supporting talked more spontaneously, related better to others, did more from their own initiative, and seemed happier. How fabulous is that!

Research into the benefits of the sensory world continues to this day with groups such as Mileski et al (2018) reporting that sensory therapies have the potential to benefit patients with dementia. But that word ‘therapy’ what does that mean? Once people start promising things will help we are vulnerable to being taken advantage of by people selling easy fixes and getting rich off our desperation to help those we care about. I am not promising that. In my book Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia I show you how you can use low-cost, everyday items to provide therapeutic sensory support for people with dementia. Joanna Grace - Sharing Sensory Stories

Sensory stories themselves are a wonderfully simple resource, they are concise narratives – typically less than ten sentences, where each line of the narrative is accompanied by a sensory experience that also carries the meaning of the story. Shared slowly with time taken to explore the resources they can be a rich communicative experience that does not rely on language. My own research into the use of the stories with people with Dementia whether at home or in care settings made the cover of Dementia Care here and in Australia! (Leighton, Oddy and Grace 2017).

The book contains a sensory story to start you off, and also advice on how to choose sensory experiences most likely to appeal to the person you care for, and how to use sensory strategies to support independence and to minimise the chances of challenging behaviour and distress. Sharing sensory conversations is very simple and can be full of connection, joy and meaning. I encourage everyone to have a go!

Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia, by Joanna Grace, is available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers at £19.99. For a 10% discount, valid from 3rd-10th August, use the code SHARE.

Baker, R. Bell, S.  Baker, E. Gibson, S. Holloway, J. Pearce, R. Dowling, Z. Thomas, P. Assey, J. Wareing, A. A randomized controlled trial of the effects of multi-sensory stimulation (MSS) for people with dementia British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2001), 40, 81–96
Hope K. W. (1998) The effects of multisensory environments on older people with Dementia Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 5, 377±385
Leighton, B. Oddy, C. and Grace, J (2017) Using sensory stories with individuals with dementia The Journal of Dementia Care July/August 2016 Vol 24 No 4
Livingston G, Kelly L, Lewis-Holmes E, Baio G, Morris S, Patel N, et al. A systematic review of the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of sensory, psychological and behavioural interventions for managing agitation in older adults with dementia. Health Technol Assess 2014;18(39).
Mileski, M.  Baar Topinka, J. Brooks, M. Lonidier, C. Linker, K. Vander Veen, K.  (2018) Sensory and memory stimulation as a means to care for individuals with dementia in long-term care facilities Clinical Interventions in Aging 2018:13 967-974