If you’re caring for a loved one with dementia, you’re probably expecting them to gradually lose their memory. However, did you know that people with dementia also experience sensory changes?
How Dementia Affects Your Senses
Dementia affects the entire brain, and it is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time.
In the early stages of dementia, your loved one may still be able to live and function independently. Maybe they’re misplacing their keys or forgetting the names of friends. During the middle stage of dementia, which is typically the longest, your loved one might tell the same stories over and over or fail to even recognize you. In the final stages of dementia, your loved one will most likely have trouble eating and swallowing and become more prone to falling and other accidents.
Along the way, dementia will change your loved one’s hearing, sight, taste, smell, and sense of touch. Each person’s experience will be different, so it’s hard to predict what sensory changes your loved one might experience. It always helps to be prepared for whatever may come their way in the journey.
Renowned dementia expert Teepa Snow says: “We can’t change the final outcome of what dementia does to the brain and body. We can, however, change how people living with dementia experience the world and care.”
In this blog, we’ll take a look at how dementia can alter a person’s senses — and how to cope with these changes.
How Dementia Impacts Hearing
When you think about hearing loss, you typically think about losing the inability to hear clearly. When it comes to dementia, that’s not necessarily the problem.
Someone with dementia may have excellent hearing. The way dementia impacts their hearing is that, due to changes in their brain, they’re unable to process certain sounds and interpret what they hear accurately.
Can you imagine being surrounded by unidentified noises? For someone with dementia, it can make them feel as if they are living in a cacophony all the time.
If your loved one seems frightened, distressed, and overstimulated by noisy environments, here are some things you can try:
- Keeping the environment calm and quiet.
- Speak slowly and calmly and encourage visiting friends and family to do the same.
- Avoid extra noises such as the television on at the same time as the radio.
How Dementia Impacts Vision
Your loved one may experience normal age-related changes to their vision. Dementia doesn’t further affect their eyesight. Rather, dementia impacts their brain’s ability to interpret what they see.
For example, your loved one might lose their ability to comprehend what or who is in front of them. Dementia may also alter their sense of depth perception, so dark patches on a floor, such as black tiles alternating with white ones, might end up looking like dangerous holes.
If your loved one seems confused by what they see or frustrated by their inability to discern colors and shapes, here are some things you can do to help:
- Use things like color-contrast strips to help differentiate things like drawers, cabinets, and steps.
- Keep floor and wall colors different. Solid, contrasting colors are less confusing to the eye.
- Place pictures on doors of important rooms, such as the bathroom and the bedroom.
How Dementia Impacts Smell
Your loved one’s sense of smell might also be impacted by dementia. They may become unable to discern subtle changes in smell, which can lead to an inability to smell smoke from a fire or tell if food is spoiled.
If your loved one appears confused by what they smell or their lack of sensory capabilities, here are some things you can do:
- Make sure that smoke detectors are installed and that the batteries are still good.
- Keep the refrigerator and pantry cleared of any outdated foods.
How Dementia Impacts Taste
Smell and taste are linked in many ways, and the loss of the ability to smell impacts a person’s ability to taste.
When there are changes in taste because of dementia, someone may consume spoiled food without knowing it. A decreased ability to taste may also cause someone with dementia to overuse salt, sugar, or other spices in order to make food more tasteful as well as put inappropriate objects or substances in their mouths.
If your loved one develops new food preferences or rejects foods they liked in the past, here are some things that can help.
- Check food items regularly for freshness and remove them when they become spoiled.
- Be flexible about food preferences. Try to prepare familiar foods in familiar ways, especially foods that are favorites.
- Make food look and smell appealing. Use different tastes, colors, and fragrances.
How Dementia Impacts Touch
As dementia progresses, so does the loss of sensation. This may mean your loved one is no longer able to interpret heat, cold, or distinguish discomfort or pain.
Touch, and a sense of closeness, help create a sense of comfort and well-being. So, for someone with dementia, decreased sensation may cause them to feel isolated from other people.
In addition to safeguarding your loved one’s environment, here are some other ways you can address their decreased sensation from dementia:
- Clearly label hot and cold water taps to avoid scalds.
- Consider using signs to indicate when major appliances, like the oven, are hot.
- Check the food temperature. Your loved one might not be able to tell you if something is too hot or too cold to eat or drink.
- Provide items that offer a comforting touch sensation, like soft stuffed animals and blankets.
- Use gentle touch as a communication tool. Holding hands, a hug, or a gentle shoulder massage is particularly good to alert the senses.
All of these techniques are based on dementia care expert Teepa Snow’s philosophy called the Positive Approach to Care. The basic idea is to focus not on what’s lost but on what’s left and to concentrate on what can be done rather than what can’t.
To learn more about how to use visual, verbal, and tactile cues to support your loved one’s current abilities and address any sensory changes they’re experiencing, download our Sensory Checklist for Memory Loss. The checklist offers more than 25 sensory activities to help family caregivers support loved ones with memory loss who might be withdrawn or isolated, restless or sleepless, or confrontational or easily upset due to dementia.