Kingston University design expert unveils new guide highlighting ways sensory rooms can improve dementia care

The researchers recommend that care homes catering for people with dementia set aside special areas to stimulate sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and movement.

Academic expert Dr Anke Jakob, from Kingston’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, has joined forces with Dr Lesley Collier, from the University of Southampton, to produce a new guide for care homes highlighting the importance of sensory areas specifically created to meet the needs of people living with the condition. Their publication, How to Make a Sensory Room for People Living with Dementia, was unveiled as part of the Inside Out Festival, which showcased the contributions universities make to London’s cultural life.

Sensory rooms provided gentle stimulation of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and movement in a controlled way, Dr Jakob explained. “They are used to enhance feelings of comfort and well-being, relieve stress and pain and maximise a person’s potential to focus, all of which help improve communication and memory,” she said. “Traditionally, these spaces have been geared more towards younger adults and children with physical or learning disabilities, using elements such as LED lighting as a visual stimulant. However, our approach emphasises the benefits of addressing all the senses to support residents diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia in a care home environment. Soft textiles, familiar everyday objects, interesting things to smell and taste, sound and film can all have an important part to play in that process.”

The guide contains advice about the different materials and tools that can be used to stimulate senses, such as scents like lavender to relax and calm, sounds from the great outdoors and foods with specific flavours. These can all help to improve mood, evoke memories and engage people living with dementia.

Earlier work carried out by Kingston University’s Design Research Centre had noted that, while many care homes had multi-sensory rooms, they were often left unused, Dr Jakob said. “Reasons for this varied – some were not set up in a way that appealed to residents, some staff did not feel the spaces would benefit the people they looked after and sometimes care workers had not been shown how to use the equipment,” she added.

Meanwhile, previous research conducted by Dr Collier at the University of Southampton had found that, if a sensory environment was adapted to individual needs, improvement in performance, mood and behaviour could be achieved. “Results showed that 74 per cent of people who took part in the study improved in motor performance – their ability to undertake everyday tasks – and 63 per cent improved in cognitive tasks – their ability to remember, problem solve and judge what to do in everyday activities,” Dr Collier said.

The new guide pulls together and builds on some of the best work already being done in care homes both in the United Kingdom and internationally. “The role of a designer is to look at space as a whole and consider how aspects such as colour, lighting, materials, furniture and sound can best work together to produce an area that will give people with dementia a positive experience,” Dr Jakob said. “Providing a soft, warm, quiet space where residents can feel secure is vital. Flickering lights and shadows, for example, may be confusing and irritating, so soft lighting should be used along with plain fabrics covering walls and ceilings.”

People with dementia faced many challenges – one of which was being overloaded with sensory stimulation, Dr Collier added. “This can prevent them from carrying out normal everyday tasks to their full potential,” she said. “We hope the guide will help care homes develop appropriate environments for their residents but also that other people who care for friends or relatives with dementia can draw inspiration from it so they can improve the lives of their loved ones.”

Drs Lesley Collier, left, and Anke Jakob shared their specialist knowledge with visitors to the Sensory Rooms exhibition staged as part of the Inside Out Festival. Image - University of SouthamptonMaizie Mears-Owen, Head of Dementia at Care UK, acted as an advisor on the project and provided the researchers with access to homes and multi-sensory environments within the organisation’s network. “As a result of the research, Care UK will be embracing an integrated approach to creating multi-sensory environments in our homes,” she said. “We fully appreciate the need for meaningful stimulation and creating relaxing, calming spaces where people living with dementia can ‘just be’. Although LED lights have been shown to have a positive impact on residents’ mood and behaviour, we mustn’t forget the more subtle ways in which people are naturally stimulated through sounds, taste, scents and touch – all of which can have a more emotive impact than sight.”

Top tips from the guide, which is available to download free, include:
• Create a space that is accessible and safe, both with and without supervision;
• Bring the outdoors inside with a water feature, plants, conkers, shells and stones;
• Old films with simpler plots can help prompt memories;
• Scents can help stimulate a mood, such as lavender to relax and calm;
• Introduce sensory cushions made from various materials, with buttons, pockets, ribbons and zips;
• Ensure items are age appropriate and familiar;
• Use background music to improve mood and help engage care residents;
• Don’t forget taste as a sensory component as it can help trigger memories and emotion;
• Have familiar personal items on display to help individuals settle and relax before engaging in activity;
• Ensure the sensory room or space is a comfortable temperature and has good air quality.

Drs Lesley Collier, left, and Anke Jakob shared their specialist knowledge with visitors to the Sensory Rooms exhibition staged as part of the Inside Out Festival. Image – University of Southampton