UK program helps create a multi-sensory approach to care for people with dementia

By Elizabeth Rhodes
University of Kentucky

Are you caring for someone with dementia? The University of Kentucky is inviting caregivers to participate in a study offering the Harmony at HOME – Help Online Modifying the Environment – telehealth program. The program provides training and tools for care partners to assess and adapt the home to promote activity engagement and behavioral regulation for the person with dementia. This study is led by researchers from the UK’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging.

(Photo by Toa55; iStock/Getty Images Plus, via University of Kentucky)

As the body and brain age, a person’s ability to absorb information, process content and respond can change significantly. Older adults often suffer from hearing loss, which can reduce their ability to understand and participate in conversations. Vision also changes, affecting the way older adults collect information, such as reading and writing.

Dementia can also affect the brain’s ability to process information from the ears, eyes, hands, and other sensory systems. For example, a spoken message may be picked up by the ears, but the brain’s processing may be slowed down or not interpret all the information that comes in. This, in turn, changes the speed and way the person with dementia responds.

A multi-sensory approach can increase success in communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Here are a few tips for using a multi-sensory approach:


• Communicate in the person’s field of view.

• Present yourself with contrast.


• When talking, slow down and take breaks. It can take up to 90 seconds for someone with dementia to process what they hear.

• To sing. Rhythm and music improve sensory processing and brain synchronization, which helps the person process sounds faster.


• Communicate with the hands. Hands often remain very sensitive to touch, so holding the hand of the person you are talking to will stimulate their attention while communicating.

Smell and taste:

• Set the mood with aromas.

• Please the palate. Flavors, such as lemon juice in water or something sweet, can increase awareness and focus when communicating.


• Gentle compression calms the mind. We can harness the calming and centering effect of a massage through gentle compression in the hands, arms and shoulders while communicating.

Movement (vestibular):

• Rocking calms the body. Linear movements, such as sitting in a rocking chair or glider, are soothing. This can be a useful strategy prior to communication or prior to performing care tasks.

Internal feelings:

• Offer suggestions for personal needs. A person’s awareness of internal feelings can diminish over time, such as feeling hungry or thirsty, in pain, feeling hot or cold, or even tired.

My previous experiences as an occupational therapist and a motivation to improve clinical care led me to develop the innovative intervention now known as Harmony at HOME, which emphasizes sensory techniques in the home environment for people with dementia. For more information, visit

Elizabeth Rhodus, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging.

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