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Many Americans—in fact, nearly 16 million—are currently caring for a loved one with dementia such as Alzheimer’s in their home. Of these care providers, all of whom are unpaid, all would like to see their loved ones live as calm and comfortable a life as possible, especially when confronted with the disorienting and often devastating effects of dementia-related diseases. 

When caring for a loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it can often be challenging to find ways for the sufferer to connect with the environment around them—but one way a caregiver can help is to build a sensory room.

What Is a Sensory Room?

A sensory room is one of the more innovate ways to mitigate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Originally developed in Europe as a treatment for people with learning disabilities, sensory rooms are increasingly being used for seniors with brain-related conditions. Sensory rooms are custom-designed areas in the home of a loved one suffering from dementia, created in way that stimulates the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

These specially designated rooms are used to calm or stimulate the senses of a loved one. The use of everyday objects to stimulate the senses can trigger memories and feelings in dementia patients, as well as calm them when in an agitated state. As the state of health of a loved one declines, sensory rooms can help a suffering senior express themselves, as well as improve their mood, self-esteem and overall wellbeing. The main goal of a sensory room is to increase social interaction and enjoyment in senior sufferers of dementia while decreasing levels and anxiety and depression associated with the disease.

How to Build a Sensory Room

Anyone can build a sensory room in their own home with some simple touches based on each sense.

  • Sight

Calm Colors: A sensory room should be a calm, stress-free environment. As such, choose colors and décor that evoke a sense of calmness. Bright, contrasting colors are fine to use in certain cases as they can stimulate interaction, but the choice of color should depend on your particular loved ones needs.

Familiar Items: Place personal items that a loved one suffering from dementia would be familiar with. Seeing something familiar can help a loved one feel comfortable and understand that the sensory room is a safe, welcoming place.

Photos: Include photos relevant to their past in the room. Childhood photos, photos of grandchildren, significant others, past vacations and milestone events are all great tools in helping jog the memory of a loved one.

Old Films: An interesting way to engage a loved one suffering from dementia is running old, familiar and favorite films in the sensory room. Old films can also help stimulate a loved one’s sense of sound.

  • Sound

Music: Playing calming, inviting music can help attract a loved one to your sensory room. Make sure to play the music at a moderate level, as you do not want to overpower or cloud your loved one’s thoughts. Music should be familiar to them, and it should be something they enjoy.

Talking and Reading: The sensory room can also be a place where you can talk with your loved one about the environment around them or read a book aloud. As their caregiver, your voice is very important to them. Make sure to only speak in soothing and calming tones in the sensory room, as the sensory room should be associated with positive, peaceful emotions, and your tone of voice is an important guide.

  • Taste

Familiar Foods: Include safe foods that your loved one knows. Keep it simple and always make sure the temperature is not too hot or cold. Enjoying a snack in the sensory room from time to time can be a way to bring some lost memories back.

Eating Healthy: Whenever you are preparing a meal or snack for a loved one suffering from dementia, make sure it is something healthy—stay away from fatty oils and saturated fats, instead sticking to fruits and vegetables.

  • Touch

Outside Sources: One of the more interesting ways you can stimulate the sense of touch in a sensory room is by bringing in objects that you would not normally find in a home, but those that are familiar. For example, sand and seashells from the beach are a great tool to bring back memories. Smooth stones, plants from the outdoors with familiar leaves are some other natural items that you can have your loved one hold.

Familiar Material: Using familiar material in your room for furniture, for example, can also be great for memory stimulation. Something as simple as feeling the wood grain on a table can create a sense of familiarity.

Tactile Objects: Find ways to include objects with things such as buttons and pockets. Bring in some familiar clothing items—something as simple as the fabric of a pillow may jog a memory or two.

  • Smell

Flowers: Everyone loves the smell of fresh-cut flowers. Not only will flowers help to remind your loved one of springtime in the past, but they will brighten up the room and create visual memories as well.

Signature Scents: Chocolate, vanilla and spices are all familiar scents that will help bring about a memory. Keep it simple and stick to one or two scents at a time—too many can be overpowering.

Simplicity is key when setting up a sensory room. The idea is not to overwhelm a loved one; instead, it is to create a comforting and welcoming environment. Safety is also vital: your senior loved one should be able to enter the sensory room without you if possible and take advantage of the calm atmosphere. Make sure your sensory room is age appropriate as well, as you do not want your senior loved one to feel like you are treating them like a child. Cater the room to your loved one’s specific needs and interests, and you and your loved one will get the most of out your sensory room.