Although dementia is most commonly thought to affect memory and cognition, there are also associated changes to sensory function. Because dementia affects the brain, which controls both memory, cognition and of course, our senses, it can have a big impact on the sensory experience of someone living with dementia.
Each of our senses has an important part to play in our relationship with the world and how we experience life. So what happens when dementia begins to affect these senses? Changes to the way we see, smell, hear, can all lead to heightened confusion, anxiety and dysregulation. Here are some of the sensory changes you might experience as someone living with dementia and some ways that your support network can help make life easier to navigate.
It’s important to stress that this won’t be a part of every dementia journey but being prepared for what may come is the best step toward continuing to live well alongside a diagnosis of dementia.
In a similar way to sight deterioration, hearing loss is something that can affect us as we get older. Where dementia is the cause of auditory changes, it might start to affect the way a person hears and interprets sounds. You may find that:
Increased sensitivity to sound may mean sounds can startle more
Noisy environments can heighten confusion and stress as filtering sound becomes more difficult
Hearing changes can affect confidence, leading to a person becoming withdrawn and isolated
If you notice these changes in yourself or a loved one, there are some great methods to ensure to stay safe and well.
If required, ensure a hearing aid is worn and make sure the batteries are operating properly
Try to avoid noisy environments and background noise
Speak clearly and slowly and when visible to the person with dementia
Dementia can impact the way we smell, what we like and don’t like, and even create olfactory hallucinations, where we think we can smell something that isn’t there (commonly a burning smell). Changes in smell can alter taste and change appetite. Heightened sensitivity to smell may increase agitation so be aware of any strong smells (e.g. cleaning items) that may trigger this.
Closely linked to smell, taste can also be affected by dementia; to the extent of fully changing a person’s lifelong preferences. It can also be influenced by medication, so it’s always worth checking with a GP, if you feel your taste buds have changed drastically. To manage a change in taste try:
Offering a selection of new food and flavours to understand new likes and dislikes
Nutritional value is important but so is getting enough calories on board. Don’t worry too much if new food preferences seem out of the ordinary
Dental hygiene should remain a priority, so if mint is a taste that’s unpopular, there are alternatives on the market
Like hearing, changes to sight can be age related. Regular eye checks and reviews are helpful in determining whether what’s at play is age or a result of the dementia.
Our brains have to work very hard to process what we see, and we rely heavily on memory to make sense of it all. Changes to vision can be very unsettling but there are some things you can try to help.
Working in harmony with the body’s natural circadian rhythm is useful. Ensuring there is a lot of natural light in the home environment throughout the day and that lamps are turned on to softer lighting in the evenings is both supportive and soothing.
Bright colours and contrast can help to distinguish between objects and furniture.
Busy patterns can be confusing and lead to misinterpretation, so they’re best avoided if possible.
A sense of touch can become heightened or dulled, depending on the unique experience of the individual. It’s important to remember that seemingly innocuous things, like a shower, may become painful. Likewise, if the sense of touch has diminished, you may not feel pain in the same way. In certain situations, like a fall, a medical check-up is a good idea.
Gentle touch and hand holding is always encouraged as a method of comfort and to be close to a loved one.
Working within these guidelines can make a significant difference towards living well with dementia. In any activity you’re planning, try to keep them in mind. If you would like to talk about any sensory challenges you’ve experience, or noticed on behalf of a loved one, give our Wayfinders a call on 01243 888691. They offer one-to-one support for anyone affected by dementia.