8 Sensory Activities That Enhance the Lives of Dementia Patients

Estimated Read Time: 6 minutes

Research shows that offering sensory activities, or sensory stimulation therapy, can reduce the effects of Dementia.

This topic hits close to home, as I recently visited my grandma who’s been living with Dementia for over 5 years now.

She struggled to recognize and communicate with us, so I was shocked when my mom pulled out her phone and played the song, “Beer Barrel Polka” (a popular song during WWII), and my grandma recited the entire chorus, word-for-word.

This is the power of sensory stimulation.

What is sensory stimulation therapy? How can you create more empowering moments for patients and loved ones?

Let’s discuss.

What is Sensory Stimulation Therapy?

sensory activities for dementia patients by holding and massaging hands

Sensory stimulation therapy is the use of activities focused on touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing to stimulate the synapses in the brain.

As our brains age, the activity of our synapses begins to slow, which causes a decreased response to our senses.

On top of this, those with Dementia may experience:

  • Memory loss
  • Communication challenges
  • Disorientation in familiar places
  • Mood and personality changes
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Poor judgment

Sensory activities help by activating these synapses and reducing the behaviors mentioned above.

Benefits of Sensory Activities for Dementia Patients

Cognitive improvements seen from sensory activities are:

  • Better memory recall
  • Increased concentration
  • Feelings of confidence
  • Increased well-being
  • Inspiration to communicate socially

By stimulating as many senses as possible, Dementia patients connect with their surroundings in a more exciting and engaging way.

Read further for 8 simple sensory activities you can do with your patients or loved ones.

8 Sensory Activities for Dementia Patients

1. Spend Time Outdoors

an elderly couple walking in a park

Nature provides a sensory experience unlike any other, engaging our sight, smell, touch, and hearing.

Go for a walk, pick flowers, lay on the beach, eat ice cream on a park bench, or do any safe outdoor activity that engages the body and mind.

This experience is very important for those spending most of their time indoors, especially in long-term care facilities.

2. Bring Nature Indoors

nursing home residents observing a serenity aquarium for a sensory activity

Those in nursing homes and memory care units can benefit from nature-focused decor.

Aquariums and bird aviaries, in particular, offer a stimulating yet relaxing activity.

Watching fish and birds can decrease disruptive behaviors and stress while promoting focus, engagement, and positive mental well-being.

And the residents cherish them. Many will relax by the habitat, observe their favorite animals, and engage with fellow residents.

We offer aquariums and aviaries for nursing homes, along with routine services to keep them clean.

Learn more about Serenity Services today!

3. Hand Massages

stimulation therapy through hand massages

A hand massage is a great way to relax a person with Dementia.

The sensation of touching hands is familiar to them, and it can encourage physical and mental relaxation.

You could also use essential oils to engage more of the senses as you massage their hands.

Calming fragrances can further stimulate the brain, inducing relaxation and producing serotonin.

4. Reading Aloud

Seniors with Dementia may lack the ability to interact socially, so you should encourage them to do so in private.

As such, a common sensory activity is reading aloud with them.

This way, they practice verbal communication, which may inspire them to speak more freely in social situations.

Book clubs, writing workshops, and poetry readings are great ways to connect groups for healthy interactions.

5. Music Therapy

nursing home residents in a group playing the drums

Playing familiar music for memory loss patients is one of the best ways to boost memories, as was true in my personal story at the beginning of this post.

There’s data to back it up, too.

A study conducted by Boston University in 2010, found that listening to music yields more memory recall than any simple conversation.

It may also help in learning new skills or actions!

How They Conducted the Experiment

The research group presented lyrics from children’s songs that the elderly test group had likely not heard before.

Lines of lyrics were presented on a computer screen and these lyrics were sung once, spoken once, and then with no sound at all.

After listening to and reading the lyrics, they were asked if they recognized any of them.

For those with Dementia and Alzheimer’s, hearing the lyrics sung to them yielded the most recall by far.

6. Arts and Crafts

close up of a person knitting for stimulation therapy

Another excellent sensory activity is to practice arts and crafts.

Many long-term care facilities provide time for pottery, painting, drawing, and knitting, to name a few.

These activities stimulate the senses while also promoting creative thinking, which is great for mental health.

Learning new skills is like a workout for our brains. It keeps our minds “in shape” and increases our aptitude to learn more.

Plus, continuous learning can improve confidence, encourage engagement, and even slow down memory loss.

7. Animal Visitation Therapy

woman sitting with birman cat

Animal visitation is a common form of therapy for Dementia patients.

Being able to pet, hold, or communicate with a cuddly animal is a premier way to boost someone’s serotonin.

This type of sensory therapy can also elicit memories from previous experiences, like their pet companions from years ago.

Even if it’s fleeting, those instances of memories are an important part of someone’s journey with Dementia.

8. Playing Board and Card Games

elderly man playing dominos as a sensory activity

Depending on the condition of your patient or loved one, many games can be great activities.

These may not stimulate all the senses, but games like Dominoes, Scrabble, and Yahtzee help Dementia patients focus, think critically, and engage with others.

Card games are also acceptable, as Cribbage, Hearts, and Go Fish provide similar stimulation and social engagement.

Additional Considerations for Sensory Activities

nurse and elderly person pointing on a calendar

How Often Should You Perform Sensory Activities with Dementia Patients?

Just like our bodies, our brains must stay active to remain sharp.

Daily sensory activities to keep the mind occupied are necessary for all Dementia patients, regardless of their condition.

It’s been shown that this type of mindfulness training can lessen the effects of Dementia in the short term and the long term.

In fact, data shows that continuous activity and learning may prevent or delay the regression involved with Dementia.

Offer Activities Related to Their Interests

You will see the best results (like positive reactions and memory recall) with activities that your patient is interested in.

Maybe this person loves motorcycles. Consider bringing in decorations related to motorcycles or turning on TV shows focused on them.

Or, perhaps bird watching was one of their favorite hobbies.

Bring in soft and colorful stuffed birds for them to hold, or take a walk outside to listen and observe them.

Be Careful Not to Overstimulate

The condition of each person is unique and should be treated as such.

Watching an old TV show may bring back positive memories, but a new show with unfamiliar themes may be confusing and stressful.

Also, those with Dementia should be encouraged to connect socially. But if a group is too large, too loud, or talking about unfamiliar topics, they may experience fatigue and agitation.

Try to understand the condition of each individual you care for.

This way, you can devise a plan that gives each member the entertainment they need without overstimulation.

Final Thoughts

Since Dementia is so difficult to prevent, we must know how to provide proper care.

As we’ve laid out in this article, there are many ways to stimulate the senses and create meaningful interaction for people living with Dementia.

Our best advice is to offer as many sensory activities as they can handle on a given day and try to cater each activity to subjects they’re interested in.

Seeing their face brighten as they recall a memory, or the confidence they exude when learning a new skill is an incredible feeling.

With regular sensory therapy, these positive instances can happen much more often.