Heightened Senses


Dementia is defined as the chronic deterioration of intellectual function and other cognitive skills severe enough to interfere with the ability to perform activities of daily living. It often results from changes in the brain caused by disease or trauma and can affect any age group, although it is most commonly seen in the elderly.

The agitation that can occur in association with dementia greatly complicates patient care, often poses a risk to the patient’s health and safety, and significantly increases the burden for families and caregivers.

Diane Hinshelwood is a Recreational Therapist in the Geriatric Psychiatry Behavioural Health Unit who has worked with dementia clients for the past 16 years. A few years ago, Hinshelwood began a study on the effects of sensory relaxation for clients with dementia. This non-intrusive approach, designed to help agitation in clients with dementia, involved 2 one-hour sessions per week in a specialized, multi-sensory environment over a period of ten weeks. Before and after each session, behavioural assessments were performed to evaluate the level and causes of agitation in each client. The overall results of the study indicated a significant decrease in the agitated behaviours that were seen prior to each session.

The idea of a sensory relaxation room was derived from Snoezelen¨, a concept developed in Holland that provides sensory experiences to individuals within a controlled environment. Snoezelen¨ therapy uses a wide variety of equipment to have a positive affect on the primary senses including auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile and vestibular systems.

“Our clients usually have problems adapting to their environment and often have low functioning issues such as decreased mobility so they can benefit from this environment without the need for any intellectual or physical activity,” says Hinshelwood. “It attempts to capture a lazy, relaxed feeling.”

Each program is tailored specifically to meet the needs of each individual, ranging from their particular nationality to their taste in music, as each client is a unique individual with different needs. Some of the equipment used in the room includes glitter lamps, tube lighting, neon fish tubes, soft music, soft pillows and stuffed toys, and comfortable furnishings including a swing. “These items help to decrease agitation while increasing sensory awareness,” says Hinshelwood. “Most importantly, these items help enrich the quality of life for our clients.”

Hinshelwood is also very excited about the new Rementia Therapy program that is currently in development. “It involves our clients viewing slideshows tailored to their individual interests and life experiences in the hopes of triggering memories such as those of days gone by or the smell of mother’s homemade apple pie. “These initiatives help increase the chances of the client returning to some previous level of normal functioning, even if only for a short period of time.

“Our sensory relaxation program definitely enhances the quality of life for our clients,” she says. As a result, it is gradually increasing in popularity. The program is currently receiving numerous requests from various areas within SJHH including Acute Brain Injury, Schizophrenia and Forensic Psychiatry. “Our vision is to one day have the equipment to make the room an actual Snoezelen¨ Room, ” Hinshelwood admits. “We hope that our increasing popularity will help make this vision a reality very soon.”