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DIY guide to creating a sensory room

Aged care organisations and carers interested in learning more about creating and using multi-sensory environments (MSE) for people with dementia will find a wealth of information in a recent guide written by UK researchers Dr Anke Jakob and Dr Lesley Collier.

How to make a sensory room for people living with dementia: a guide book offers advice about different materials and ideas that can be used by carers to make a sensory space and develop a ‘sensory tool kit’ to provide stimulation appropriate for people living with dementia (particularly mid and late stages) that will enhance feelings of comfort and well-being and relieve stress.

Dr Jacob, from London’s Kingston University, and Dr Collier, from the University of Southampton, developed the good-practice guide based on a 2013 research study of 16 care homes in England. The study, Multi Sensory Environment (MSE) In Dementia Care: The Role Of Design (2013-14), investigated multi-sensory facilities and environments in the care homes and observed sensory sessions and conversations with staff. Examples of good practice, suggestions and comments were recorded and used to compile the guide.

It begins with an explanation of what constitutes multi-sensory stimulation – including examples of sensory stimulation for each of the senses (sight, touch, sound, smell, taste and movement) – and the benefits of a sensory room/MSE (also called Snoezelen) in dementia care.

The authors state that while little is known about how or why MSEs work, “research studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that people with dementia find them enjoyable and relaxing” and those in the later stages of dementia show “positive changes in mood and behaviour”.

The authors explain, however, that MSEs don’t always meet expectations and staff often stop using them, due to unsatisfying and inappropriate aesthetics and function.

They list possible deficiencies of sensory rooms in care homes including: equipment and imagery that’s not age appropriate; cluttered space; and not enough variety of sensory experience.

The guide emphasises that MSEs must address all the senses and offers specific advice and examples of how each of these senses can be stimulated. Topics covered include: lighting, textiles, furniture, food, room temperature, technology, access, ways to reduce over-stimulation, tactile activities, music and sound, colour and artwork.

Tips from the guide include:

  • Don’t be afraid to start small. You don’t need lots of expensive equipment – rather there should be a balance between high-tech and everyday, familiar items.
  • Begin by finding a quiet space that’s big enough for four to six people, or failing that, a quiet corner or even a sensory trolley that can be taken to a resident’s room.
  • Ensure you have something to stimulate each of the senses – for example music instruments or scented cushions made from different materials can provide a combination of visual, tactile, audio or olfactory stimulation.
  • No overhead lighting. Daylight needs to be softened and filtered through blinds or textiles.
  • Less is more’ – provide visual focus by using only a few stimulating items at the same time.
  • Having a few familiar, personal items on display can help individuals settle and relax before engaging in activities.
  • Sensory cushions, blankets, books and armchair covers with zips, ribbons, buttons and pockets can stimulate vision, touch, hearing, movement and reminiscence.
  • Other tactile activities include playing with sand, water, jelly, flour and fragrant play dough.
  • The smell of everyday things can be used to good effect, such as wood, herbs, peeled citrus fruit, chocolate, coffee and spices.
  • Play music at a moderate volume to attract people to the space.
  • Taste can provoke memories as well as emotions, so staff must understand individual likes and dislikes.
  • It’s important to have a clear assessment procedure and guidelines for staff and carers on how to use the room.

How to make a sensory room for people living with dementia: a guide book was released in late 2014 and is available for free download from www.kingston.ac.uk/sensoryroom

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