Sensory stimulation as therapy for individuals with learning disabilities was originally developed in Europe in the 1960s. Over the past several decades, it has gained prominence in the United States as a treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease and cognitive decline in older adults.
Despite its technical sounding name, sensory stimulation is actually a very simple concept: By exposing individuals to familiar objects that arouse the senses, we can induce positive emotions in people with dementia or organic cognitive decline. It’s a technique caregivers can use at home to help elderly loved ones relax, reduce their anxiety, and help them feel safe and comfortable. Best of all, sensory stimulation as therapy uses familiar, everyday objects available to anyone.
Turning to nature for inspiration, we’ve compiled a list of five types of natural objects and experiences you can use to stimulate the senses of an elderly patient or loved one. Why not give one or more of them a try?
1. At the Beach
In a small box or basket, place a few seashells, smooth pebbles, a see-through container or plastic bag of sand, and any other items that might remind the elderly person of the beach. Did she like to wear sunglasses? A floppy hat? Give her the basket and let her touch and examine the items; ask her to recall a favorite visit to the beach. You can even include a bottle of fragrant tanning lotion and massage a little into her arm or hand to stimulate even more of her senses.
2. In the Garden
For the gardener (or cook), fill a plastic bucket with seed packets, cut flowers, a handful of fresh berries or vegetables, and items, such as gardening gloves or a hand spade. Encourage him or her to touch and smell the flowers and produce, and to try on the gloves or make digging motions with the spade.
3. From the Market
Fill a shopping bag or basket with fresh herbs and spices, such as rosemary and cinnamon sticks, ripe apples, coffee beans, and any other natural items with a distinctive aroma. This sensory basket is appropriate for anyone with memories of cooking, grocery shopping, and visits to the county fair or farmer’s market.
4. In Your Backyard or Park
This is another natural place to find familiar items and potent stimuli. Thoughtful ideas include a bird’s nest, feathers, fresh leaves or pine needles, even a plastic bag of grass clippings—go ahead and get creative. If you know them well, you can include items that remind them of their own yard or favorite park, such as a particular flower or tree branch, some clothespins, or a citronella candle to smell.
5. At the Farm or Zoo
Few things evoke more positive emotions than remembering a family pet or favorite animal. To help your loved one conjure up warm memories, fill a basket with soft, tactile items, such as a piece of fur, sheep’s skin, or lamb’s wool; chamois is another pleasant option. If you know what kind of pets or animals the person had, you can also include related items, such as a grooming brush, rubber ball, or catnip mouse. Animal flashcards or photographs of family pets are also good ideas.
No matter which sensory approach you choose, your stimulation session will get better results if you combine elements that appeal to more than one sense in each basket. Find things that are visually attractive and colorful to look at, things with familiar smells and even tastes, and items that can be held and manipulated. Be sure to accompany your sensory stimulation time with words and questions designed to encourage the elderly person to talk about their memories and experiences; ideally, you’ll help them remember things that help them feel meaningful and involved. And don’t forget the power of touch—he or she will always appreciate a shoulder rub, hug, handshake, or just a stroke of the arm.