Julie Ackley is the Director of VIVA! Life at Pathway to Living. She has her Masters in Special Education and Expressive Therapies and has 18 years of experience in both long term care and acute care environments.
Our senses (sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing) are vital to our ability to connect with and make sense of the world around us. Although it’s normal and natural to experience a decline in sensory function as one ages, this process will be more rapid and pronounced for those individuals living with dementia. Experiencing sensory deficits may lead to feelings of isolation, heightened anxiety and depression, negatively impacting quality of life. Fortunately there are things we can do to support a loved one experiencing sensory loss.
What is sensory stimulation?
Sensory stimulation is actually brain stimulation. Our brain processes sensory input (stimulation) and turns it into sensation. Our finger touches a hot burner and our brains register pain. Olfactory nerves in our noses process stimulation as smells. In this way the familiar scent of a rose triggers powerful pleasant, long-term memories of a favorite cutting garden, or fresh baked cookies prompt reminiscing of helping Mom in the kitchen. Sensory experiences can remain a valuable and viable method of connection and communication well into the disease process and can successfully bypass difficulties inherent with traditional verbal communication.
Sensory stimulation that correlates with the interests of the individual prove most engaging and can include listening to music, aromatherapy, viewing vintage photographs, visual art etc. Studies have shown numerous benefits to sensory stimulation for those living with dementia including improved mood and self-esteem, increased communication and social interactions to name a few. Simply stepping outdoors can engage numerous senses; e.g., hearing the chirping of birds, smelling freshly cut grass, observing clouds move across the sky, etc.
The use of a memory box/lap basket can be used to prompt conversation and reminiscing while providing a tremendous source of enjoyment for the individual living with dementia. Memory boxes not only promote recall and reminiscing of long-term memories of significant events and relationships, but they can inspire engagement, provide sensory/mental stimulation, spur creativity and storytelling as well as provide additional insight into and connection with the individual.
Encouraging the exploration of simple items evoking a sensory response, e.g., the texture of seashells collected while on vacation, the aroma and feel of soft leather on an old baseball glove, can provide a source of pleasure and engagement for your loved one as well as reduce stress or anxiety. The memory box can include anything that has significance to the individual and reflects their hobbies, interests or favorite things. Items can include both personal keepsakes and seemingly ordinary things. Incorporating items that appeal to multiple senses (e.g., textures/scents the resident finds comforting) can enrich the experience and further deepen the engagement.
Possible items to include:
- Diaries/letters/newspaper articles
- A family heirloom
- Vacation souvenirs
- Family photos
- Grandchildren’s artwork
- A trophy or medal
- Letter(s) from a loved one
- Handwritten copy of a favorite recipe
- Sheet music or a recording of a favorite song
- Old postcards/maps
- Jewelry (e.g., a favorite necklace or earrings)
- Old coins
- Wedding items (satin gloves, veil)
- Items related to a favorite hobby, e.g., sewing pattern, sketchbook, gardening gloves, etc.
Involving the entire family in the creation of your loved-one’s memory box can be fun! Get creative (think out-of-the box!) in selecting a suitable container that reflects a particular theme, is related to the items contained therein or holds some particular significance to the individual. It should be durable, easy to hold or lift and fit comfortably on your loved one’s lap or a small table.
Note that it is entirely normal if your loved doesn’t initially recognize a particular item(s) at first or even seem confused as to why it was included. Upon examination, they may discover new meaning for some items and a memento meant to stimulate one particular memory, may instead bring on another. Either way, the experience of exploring the box together can inspire the sharing of thoughts, feelings and even create new memories for the family.