22 Jan

Sensory Room Calming For Those With Dementia Who Are Suffering From Anxiety


A soothing scent of lavender aromatherapy oil permeates the air

A dementia care facility in Johannesburg has developed a ‘sensory room’, an innovative new international concept in the care of people with dementia, where light, textures, movement, sound and décor are used to create a calming, familiar and comforting environment.

“The idea behind the Sensory Room is to create a space where environmental factors can be carefully controlled in order to achieve a calming effect for the individual with dementia who may be feeling anxious or overwhelmed, which is, unfortunately, a relatively common symptom of more advanced dementia,” explains Ivan Oosthuizen, chief executive officer of the Livewell Villages in Bryanston and Somerset West.

“The considerable benefits of sensory rooms for people with dementia, which is characterised by symptoms such as progressive memory loss, have been demonstrated by some of the most pioneering dementia care services and practitioners internationally,” points out Oosthuizen.

“Their experience has shown that for those with more advanced levels of dementia and Alzheimer’s, many of whom can suffer bouts of bewilderment and severe anxiety, a sensory room can greatly assist in relieving stress and create a sense of comfort and well-being. As stress commonly has a negative impact on memory, this form of therapeutic activity can therefore also often meaningfully assist in supporting the individual’s memory.”

According to Oosthuizen, Livewell Villages is a dementia care service that is constantly monitoring the latest dementia care approaches and trends globally in order to provide leading-edge care to residents and those who are making use of its respite care services. Impressed by the sensory room concept, which was proving of therapeutic benefit for many people abroad, the team decided to investigate the possibility of developing its own sensory room at its Johannesburg care facility.

“After research and consultations with appropriate experts, we were able to develop a sensory room that we believe is ideally suited to local conditions, as well as completely adaptable to meet the needs and varying requirements of each our residents with dementia.

“The Livewell team is immensely proud of the result, which to the best of our knowledge is the first facility of its kind in South Africa and an expression of our highly innovative approach to caring for people with dementia. We are, however, particularly gratified to have been able to create a place where those in our care can spend many tranquil and happy hours.”

Corlia Schutte, an occupational therapist at the Livewell Village in Bryanston, says that it is essential in dementia care to ensure that the person is adequately stimulated according to their individual and constantly evolving needs, but at the same time, they should not feel overwhelmed by an overload of sensory information.

“The Sensory Room is proving popular for those residents who require a peaceful retreat after an exciting day of activities, or who enjoy a rich sensory experience that pleasantly stimulates them. It is also most useful in those cases where the individual may feel fretful and disorientated, which quite commonly occurs in people with dementia.”

She says the team meticulously records which aspects of the room a particular person with dementia engages with, and what affects this has on their mood and behaviour. “This is enabling us to build up a very useful record that helps us to enhance the room and the experience it creates for our residents. We can also use this information to tailor and adapt the environment to suit the individual’s mood and preferences at a particular time.”

The muted lighting in the room is accented with softly glowing coloured lights, and a soundtrack of melodious classical music incorporating natural sounds of birdsong, ocean waves and running water create a sense of serenity in the room. A soothing scent of lavender aromatherapy oil permeates the air – an aroma that is known for its relaxing qualities for many people, according to Schutte.

Drapery on the ceiling creates the feeling of a sheltered, cosy womb-like environment, which is also aesthetically pleasing, while comfortable antique rocking chairs and ottomans, textiles of various textures and cool, pale blue-green painted walls are familiar and evocative of peace and safety. She notes that the sensation of gently rocking in a rocking chair is particularly comforting for some people with advanced dementia.

An array of old fashioned toys, weighted cuddly toys and dolls are available in the room for people to hold. “The sensation of cradling a weighted doll is especially comforting for many of our residents and we have noted that it often serves to reduce feelings of agitation or stress. It is believed that certain people with dementia are drawn to such items because they replicate similar feelings to that of a parent caring for a baby.

“Some of our residents are moved to caress and hum to a doll as a mother will comfort her infant, and this can be a welcome distraction if the person has become upset, as it replaces this emotion with more positive feelings of love and protective, nurturing instincts,” observes Schutte.

“In different moods, the same resident may find different aspects of the experience of the Sensory Room enticing. A certain resident may be feeling low one day, and we bring them to the Sensory Room and notice that they concentrate deeply on the music, become more subdued, and later appear to be more uplifted after spending time there. In another mood, the same resident may stroke the soft fabrics and handle the toys, and be lulled into a calmer mood.”

She says that at other times, the Livewell team may find the person is not inclined to spend time in the room and may prefer to rather be out and about in the garden watching the birds or picking flowers, and this is also encouraged.  

“While people with dementia may not always be able to express what they feel like doing, we are so sensitive to their non-verbal cues that we can usually tell whether they are in the mood for a particular activity or environment at a given time, and can make adjustments for their comfort accordingly.”

“The Sensory Room at Livewell Villages in Bryanston is proving to be an invaluable tool that is not only assisting in providing residents with appropriate levels of stimulation but is also helping many to deal with their feelings of agitation and promoting an improved sense of wellbeing. While these benefits may seem somewhat intangible, we as carers can observe the very real difference this facility is making to the lives of many of our residents,” concludes Schutte.

Livewell CEO, Ivan Ooshuisen

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