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What is Sensory Stimulation and Why Do People with Dementia Need It?


It is important to find ways to help individuals with dementia live a full, enriched life. We all want to stay connected and maintain our relationships with loved ones living with dementia. Here at Iris Memory Care, we’ve put together some helpful information on how to keep your loved one’s calm, interactive, and engaged through sensory stimulation. 

What is Sensory Stimulation?

Sensory stimulation is the activation of one or more of the senses including taste, smell, vision, hearing, and touch. It can range from something as simple as a hand massage with scented lotion or listening to a playlist of favorite music to more complicated activities designed to provide a sensory experience. It can help people with dementia call up positive memories and emotions, and encourage them to communicate and engage with the people around them.

Why People with Dementia Need it

Our brains and nervous systems are a constant hum of electrical activity, and they respond to the world around them. On brain scans, we see areas of the brain light up in response to different kinds of stimulation. Interaction with the world around us is what our bodies are designed to do, and we need stimulation to thrive. While most of us are used to a barrage of sensory stimulation from everyday activities such as going to the grocery store, walking the dog, or working with our hands, this is not the case for many people living with dementia. 

As dementia progresses, a sense of fear, isolation, and confusion can prevent people with memory loss from experiencing sensory stimulation in their everyday lives. The more advanced stages of dementia bring with them challenges in communicating, as well as more physical manifestations of the disease like difficulty with mobility. Consequently, people with dementia, whose brains are slowly losing synapses, also begin to experience a loss of the sensory stimulation due to the isolation and confusion, as well as physical limitations they face. 

Benefits of Sensory Stimulation 

By giving people with dementia a way to express themselves other than words, sensory stimulation can help them relax and improve their overall mood, self-esteem, and well-being. For example, if a senior living with dementia was born and raised near the beach, an item as small as a seashell can bring back memories of their childhood home. Simply feeling the texture and weight of the shell in their hands or bringing it up to their ear can strengthen their cognitive abilities without even knowing it. 

In addition to evoking positive feelings, sensory stimulation can also help people with dementia communicate. By using certain objects, sensory stimulation can help seniors who are struggling to communicate and relate to the world around them ask questions, respond to verbal clues, or remain calm in a stressful situation. Other benefits of sensory stimulation include:

  • Improving cognitive symptoms and maintaining daily function
  • Encouraging participation in social groups
  • Opportunity for reflection and trips down memory lane
  • Increased concentration and alertness
  • Easing communication

Sensory Stimulation Activities

For the most part, sensory stimulation activities work best when they’re linked to interests the person had prior to dementia to help rebuild a connection to everyday life. It’s important to tailor the activities to each specific person, taking into account their individual needs and preferences. Depending on whether someone is in early or more advanced stages of memory loss, some activities are more suitable and appropriate than others. Sensory stimulation activities can include:

  • Bringing in objects the senior doesn’t normally have around
  • Giving a gentle hand massage
  • Taking a short walk outdoors to provide a change of scenery
  • Talking or reading aloud to the senior
  • Organizing pets to come for visits
  • Cooking their favorite meal
  • Play games such as “Guess the Smell.” Fill small, airtight containers with cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, basil, and others. 
  • Create a Sensory Box.” This is simply a box filled with personalized items precious to the individual - knick-knacks, holiday photos, an old driver’s license, favorite perfume, awards, religious mementos, and anything else dear to the person. 

Sensory stimulation is intended to bring joy to people living with dementia, reduce anxiety and depression, and increase communication. If you’re ever looking for more tips on how to engage with your loved one, visit our blog at Iris Memory Care.