Sensory stimulation for memory-care residents

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Theresa Klein, cognitive clinical specialist at Emerald Crest by Augustana Care’s Burnsville location on East Travelers Trail, helped design the facility’s new multisensory therapy room. (Photo by John Gessner)

Burnsville facility introduces unique therapy

A blue and green globule of light on the wall, a Beach Boys tune on the CD player and a chair vibrating gently to the beat helped an elderly woman summon the comforts of her past.

She’s a resident of the late-stage dementia house at Emerald Crest by Augustana Care in Burnsville. The memory-care center is pioneering multisensory therapy designed to stimulate and enliven people who’ve lost most of their interactive capabilities.

“They tend to go inward. We wanted to be able to bring them out,” said Theresa Klein,  a cognitive clinical specialist at the Burnsville residence who helped design the program.

The multisensory environment — housed in an 8-by-14-foot room in Emerald Crest’s Marigold house for late-stage patients — is the first of its kind in the Twin Cities metro area to be used with older adults suffering dementia or Alzheimer’s, the company says. It hopes to export the concept to its three other memory-care residences in the Twin Cities.

Similar therapies have been used with developmentally disabled adults. The concept began with “Snoezelen” rooms developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s.

But those were designed  to calm and relax, while Emerald Crest uses its “sensory show” to alert, enliven and trigger memory.

The shows are personalized through interviews with a resident’s family members. A woman who loved music of the ’50s and ’60s and walking on the beach in California is treated to a blue and green light show and the Beach Boys.

The room, painted white, is full of sound-and-light gadgets, including  “bubble” and “popcorn” tubes of flashing lights, lighted fiber optic cables residents can play with or hold on their laps, and even a disco ball.

The show is directed by a therapist via a control panel that holds the CD player and a projector that beams a main focal image onto a wall. The room, which opened this spring,  was a year and a half in the making, said Klein, who designed it with a consultant.

“Everybody’s sensory show is going to look different,” she said. A show has been designed for each of the 12 residents of the late-stage house.

People with late-stage dementia are “still sensing” and “still feeling,” Klein said. But with diminished cognition, they can get “stuck” trying to demonstrate emotions.

“What we’re trying to do is kind of unstick them a little bit,” Klein said. “We’re trying to get them to move freely through these different areas of senses and emotions.”

In one case, repeat therapies elicited a patient’s first speech in a year, Klein said. The woman usually sat in her wheelchair with her arms crossed and fingers curled inward.

A multisensory program that included the song “Amazing Grace” eventually had the deeply religious resident lifting her eyes to the moving lights and tapping a hand to the music.

“We said, ‘Did you enjoy the show?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’ ” Klein said.

The woman’s husband noticed the difference, too, saying his wife’s heightened alertness also boosted her appetite.

In addition to increased alertness, staffers hope benefits will include heightened attention to daily care and activities, fewer falls, better sleep, less need for medication and less wandering, agitation and repetitive speech.