For the patient with dementia the world can be a very fragmented and confusing place. In 2010 there were an estimated 35.6 million people with dementia worldwide and this is set to double by 2030, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI).
In the late 1970’s, two Dutch psychologists developed the idea of Snoezelen Rooms, initially as a therapy for those with learning disabilities. Over time this initial idea has merged with the use of a wide range of multi-sensory stimulation to provide special environments for people with a variety of disabilities, disorders and conditions including dementia, autism, intellectual disability, brain injury, chronic pain, and for those in palliative care. The terms Snoezelen Rooms, White Rooms and Multi-Sensory Rooms tend to be used interchangeably but, as the term ‘Snoezelen’ is now a registered trademark of an English sensory equipment supplier, we use the name Multi-Sensory Room or MSR.
Multi-sensory rooms have traditionally been used for people with learning difficulties as a leisure activity; however they are now used extensively for people with dementia. By using a tool box of equipment that stimulates the senses of sight, sound, taste, smell and movement, the rooms can provide a large variety of activities that aid concentration and provide stimulation or relaxation dependent on sensory stimuli.Aside from the brain, the eye is the most complex and incredible organ in the animal world. Vision is our most important sense, the one through which we gain most of our information, and the one that offers the broadest range of possibilities for stimulation.
As long as there is light, everything is visible, and potentially stimulating. Simply, vision is what happens when light enters the eye and is turned into electrical impulses by the eye’s retina. These impulses travel along the optic nerve to the occipital cortex of the brain. The brain then “sees” the image that the eye sends. Visual stimulation is brain stimulation, and brain stimulation is what we are after.
Sensory therapy has proven effective in calming aggressive behavior and improving mood. It is believed that this non-threatening environment offers gentle stimulation that reduces tension.The idea of an MSR is to provide stimulation, and yet be calming. Essentially, one would allow the user of the space the time and opportunity to experience at their own pace what theroom has to offer. One may not use or activate immediately all equipment that the room has available, but gradually introduce more of the sensory stimulation, allowing the cues given by the client to guide the carer.
Special switches to suit the physical abilities of users can be used to start or modify the behaviour of the equipment, thus changing the sensory experience. This allows the rooms to be used in active programs, where switch skills, cause-effect understanding, concentration and memory abilities can be developed in a fun, focused environment.
The specific benefits of Multi-Sensory Rooms are hard to assess. There are countless anecdotal reports of improved mood, fewer disruptive behaviours, decreased anxiety and fear, improved communication and enhanced interpersonal interactions. However, rigorous scientific studies are relatively few. This is probably because MSRs can be so varied in what they contain and provide, and are used in so many different ways with a broad range of users that it becomes impossible to control all the variables required for a stringent study. It would seem that some behaviours, such as aggression and self-injury do improve, especially whilst the client is in the MSR environment. Some evidence suggests that challenging behaviours in dementia may be reduced after MSR experiences.
The MSR has provided a venue where the visiting family have been able to enjoy a time and space together with the dementia suffering relative, making the visit more pleasurable all around and thereby increasing the likelihood that visits will be repeated. Such an outcome is surely worthwhile at many levels.