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How to enhance sensory elements in aged care facilities

Our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. None of these are any less important for the elderly – in fact they might be even more valued. Sensory stimulation is vital to the emotional wellbeing of humans and it’s absolutely essential in the aged care setting. Not only does it convey emotional support, affection and respect but sensory stimulation can dramatically improve a person’s quality of life. For example, it’s particularly important in helping people with dementia communicate while reducing agitation, sleep disturbances and unmet needs too.

Here are ways that you can improve the sensory experience of the most overlooked of the senses in an aged care facility:

There’s no denying that aged care facilities are often associated with less than desirable odours but the drive to curtail this goes well beyond the discomfort of visitors. The power of positive scent shouldn’t be understated. Of all the senses, scent is the best sensory cue for evoking pleasant memories and studies have shown that people have a very real and visceral reaction to scent. Put simply, the right smells can trigger memories and create truly pleasant experiences.

For this reason, carefully chosen fragrances should be subtly introduced into care homes to alleviate stress and make residents feel more relaxed and comfortable. This is particularly important when you consider that the emotional state of residents in senior living facilities can have a direct effect on their physical health. Increased anxiety and depression can exacerbate existing poor health and lead to other health complications.

From eucalyptus (commonly used to stimulate mental activity and increase blood flow to the brain), to calming lavender which is known to reduce the heart rate, thoughtful use of scent is vital in the aged care setting.

The healing power of music is a recognised phenomenon and listening to music not only distracts from physical and emotional pain but it can help alleviate loneliness, boredom and depression. Music engages the brain and is thought to have a positive effect on other brain functioning such as language ability and attention span too.

And with many aged care residents living with dementia, the benefits of playing music cannot be understated. Music has been found to stimulate the deeper recesses of the brain and there are MRI scans to prove it – the brains of people with dementia literally light up when music is played.

Furthermore, for people with dementia, music can unlock memories and the feelings associated with those memories. In fact, music is so intrinsic to people’s lives that some residents with severe dementia have been able to remember song lyrics from their youth upon hearing just a few bars of their favourite tune. Additionally, research by the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge found that people with dementia who took part in music therapy had improved dementia symptoms, general wellbeing and harboured less animosity towards caregivers.

Music engagement is mainly about connecting, rather than communicating, and creating meaningful experiences as well as entertaining. Regular music sessions with familiar music is a wonderful way to positively influence mood and behaviour.

Family members and staff can work with residents to identify music and songs for their playlists. They can observe which music on the radio and TV they respond to. Play a variety of music with the person to see what sparks their interest and response.

Studies suggest music that’s familiar and likable elicits the best responses, and any songs associated with prior experiences — including those of their youth (ages 18 to 25) — have a higher potential for engagement.

Music has been found to shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements. Music used with a person with dementia can ultimately help maintain their quality of life or even improve it.

Effective signage is a simple yet effective way to use one of our most powerful senses – sight. Firstly, reception areas could showcase care services and welcome visitors using a digital screen. Screens, featuring picture menus, could also help residents choose meals in the dining area and staff could upload content such as menus and activities accordingly.

Entertainment is another factor to consider. Displaying a slideshow of photographs of residents participating in recent activities, or playing a video of gentle exercise, screens can be used to entertain residents also.

Digital wayfinding maps for large sites (both indoor and outdoor in carparks and entrances) and interactive screens and video walls also improve the user experience in the aged care environment, and can actually be easier for those with poor eyesight.

From scent to sound and sight, it’s imperative that we build sensory stimulation into aged care programs, and we must be proactive and inventive in finding sources of enrichment for older people whose emotional wellbeing is at risk. By enhancing sensory elements in an aged care setting, you can dramatically improve the emotional wellbeing of residents.

Mark Larner is the Head of Innovation at Mood Media Australia, an in-store media solutions company dedicated to elevating the customer experience.

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