Dementia can be an incredibly disorientating disease for sufferers and family members who must witness the wax and wane of memory, language and cognition in their loved ones. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, whereby cognitive and neurological processes in the brain decline and worsen, in a chronic manner. Often, the disease may be first noticed by family members, whereby occasional forgetfulness advances into a lack of awareness of recent events, as well as disorientation. The prevalence of this disease is increasing as the decades go on, with nearly 30 million people worldwide affected by Alheimer’s disease. The causes are not well known, but there are some initial indications that genetics and diet play a role.
With Alzheimer’s, adverse proteins like plaques disrupt the normal flow of connections to neurons in both hemispheres of the brain. This dysfunction in neural signalling affects processes such as cognition and the ability to form speech, as well as to access memories. Different parts of the brain can be affected, signalling vastly different emotive and executive functions of individuals. However, as with most diseases, there are good days and bad days – meaning some days, sufferers may even have normal, totally coherent conversations with loved ones, followed by days of disability. Inflammation, depression, the gut microbiome and even hypertension have been well implicated in the development of dementia, yet there are currently no strong precautionary or therapeutic approaches.
One of the promising treatments emerging is the use of alternative therapies to help suffers relax and engage with more calm emotional states. As dementia is typically quite frightening and disorientating, those with advanced stages of the disease can exhibit aggressive behaviour and react to their sense of confusion. Historically, music and/or reading therapy was used to calm patients, as these can stimulate different areas of the brain not as affected by the disease, and thus providing a therapeutic ‘break’ from symptoms. In recent years, therapies engaging the sensual signalling in dementia sufferers has emerged and has posed a promising tool to improve the quality of life in sufferers.
Sensory rooms have been used in recent years to stimulate the senses of dementia and Alzheimer’s sufferers by providing triggers or interactive experiences. Depending on the disease profile and characteristics of the sufferer, individual differences in treatment must be considered – some may need to be calmed, others may need to be stimulated. Sensory rooms are diverse spaces which include safe objects, foods, music, visual content and even fun materials which are to be engaged with by the patient. The novel feelings and sensory stimulation which occur in these environments can serve to provide focus and concentration to typically unfamiliar experiences. For example, a patient exhibiting agitated behaviour may benefit from a more relaxed mood profile by engaging with soothing music, soft cushions and pleasant, aromatic smells. Likewise, a patient with sedating and more disabling dementia may enjoy upbeat music, tactile objects and smells promoting alertness like cinnamon.
Crucially, these rooms often benefit from a ‘less is more’ approach. Leaving the patient to discover their own favourite places, objects and smells can lead to a more beneficial experience, as well as helping to personalise the sessions. When inside this environment, positive cognitive association may be made by the patient as a room which triggers feelings of comfort, safety and relaxation. This primal association may also aid in improving association of behaviour and memory to past events, as well as aiding in the somatic sensations of reliving previous past events, like holidays and marriages. This grounded practice of using classic mindfulness techniques to stay in the present moment can be incredibly beneficial to patients experiencing states of dissociation in particularly bad periods.
Furthermore, this practice can be reminiscent of a simpler time, and is a typically more inviting method of getting friends and family members involved in the care of a loved one.
Although the causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s are still being explored, a lack of viable treatment methods now mean focus is on improving quality of life, tolerance and reducing other co-morbidities. Aside from dietary control, mediation of risk factors like high blood pressure and depression, treatments are centred around limiting deterioration of the disease states. Engaging in pleasurable activities such as creativity, music, reminiscing of past experiences, memories and physical contact with loved ones can be a good method of improving mood and tolerance. Sensory rooms act as a cost effective, safe and increasingly accepted method of stimulating or relaxing patients with dementia. The flexibility and ease of access make this treatment perfect for adapting to different disease and symptom profiles in individuals. In the future, children’s and disability centres with these rooms may look to outsource and improve community integration by affiliating these services with those looking to open up to dementia and Alzheimer’s management and rehabilitation.