What are Sensory and Tactile Products for?

What counts as sensory and tactile? 

Sensory and tactile items are things which appeal to the senses. This may be for the texture or ‘feel’, the scent, the noise it makes or the visual attractiveness. Some items may have more than one appeal in that they may be highly textured, colourful and also make a noise. Many toddler toys could be described as being highly sensory and tactile but there are also other sectors of society that can benefit from these types of activities such as people living with a mental disorder or disease like dementia.

This group in particular can find their senses dull as the synapses (electrical message pulses) become damaged and they increasingly become isolated and detached from the real world around them. Many dementia carers try to incorporate regular therapy using activities such as hand massage with scented oil, or tactile comfort items that may have attachments to feel and use like plaiting ribbons or opening and closing a Velcro tab.

Everyday items can be used to good effect. Different fabrics can evoke memories of running a household such as a cotton tea towel, terry towelling nappy, hand-knitted jumper or a piece of net curtain can provide a sense of familiarity. A piece of sandpaper or clean paintbrush may stimulate the action of sanding down or painting a wall. A bicycle bell is great for touch and sound alike and can be mounted on board if there are concerns that the user might throw it across the room.

What does do sensory and tactile products do for the user?

Sensory activities can increase alertness, reduce agitation and improve quality of life. We all have receptors in our brains that ‘light up’ when our senses are exposed to stimulatory experiences, whether it be the sun warming our skin, the tangy taste of orange or hearing a baby cry. These ‘experiences’ help us to stay engaged and alert, they may trigger memories or conversation, we may like or dislike the experience but they elicit a response in our brain and this enables us to flourish.

People who participate in this type of therapy can often find feelings of stress diminish and they find their self-esteem is boosted, especially if the activity helps them to communicate with others. Linking the activity with someone’s personal background can be of particular benefit, for instance, if the participant lived in a rural setting, grass cuttings to smell and touch, a short clip of a farm tractor or cows in a field can help to stimulate memories of their past life. The smell and feel of a freshly baked loaf of bread can be a good way to get them to open up about childhood days and typical meals being cooked.

Remembering and talking about these experiences helps them feel comforted and gives a sense of placement and helps increase confidence. People who are normally reticent about talking can find it easier to focus on a particular item and a memory that is associated with it, rather than general chatting. They may want to begin with a one-to-one session but will move on to join a small group of others where one person’s experience leads to others sharing similar stories which can lead to better bonding and friendships.

For someone in late-stage dementia, who may be confined to bed will often like small tactile games that work the fingers and wrists. There is a wide range of fun handheld items that can help with boredom and thus alleviate stress and anxiety such as our Busy Hands Kit.

How do you know what to use with whom?

With such a variety of different activity sources to choose from, try to tailor each to the individual. Someone in the early stages of dementia will be open to try many different activities unlike those in the later stages who may be more limited in what they will try. Most people enjoy musical activities and the individual may be unwilling to join in with the singing but may like to bang a drum in time or wave a floaty scarf around – the main thing is that they are engaging with the activity.

Someone who is unwilling to take part in a group activity may just enjoy stroking a soft pet and talking to it. These ‘companion’ pets are ideal to help calm and relax anyone who gets agitated easily. Some have a ‘breathing’ motion and the cat or dog will curl up on a lap or chair and provide real comfort without any of the bothers of a real pet. There are now robotic pets that will respond to touch with a range of lifelike movements, the Joy for All range have both cats and puppies and are soft to stroke and can provide the perfect solution to someone who is lonely or finds communication difficult.

Sometimes a short walk outside in the fresh air can be enough to stimulate conversation. They may be a little reticent, to begin with, but often, will settle into the walk and start to notice things around them, the breeze, traffic noise or maybe a siren. Keep it to just a few minutes and try to build it up into a regular outing as this will not only stimulate the brain but strengthen muscles and help balance too.

Sensory and tactile activities are also used for anyone with a disablement such as a sight or hearing impairment. This category of people will often enjoy feeling or smelling activities to help with the loss of the part of their sense that is diminished or gone. Tactile games and pastimes are readily available that are fun to do and can really help alleviate boredom and provide a sense of purpose. A game such as scented jars to guess the smell is often popular and these can be changed regularly to keep the game interesting. Try to enhance the senses that are working to provide stimulation and plenty of brain activity.

What should you consider when using sensory and tactile products?

Safety is of major importance and consideration needs to be given to the individual’s ability. Someone in the earlier stages of dementia could hold a handful of marbles and start to roll them along the floor and play the game but a person with late-stage dementia might see them as sweets and put them in their mouth, therefore extra care must be taken to avoid any dangerous pitfalls like this and if in doubt, do not give anything that could be eaten or swallowed or with sharp edges (in the same way you wouldn’t give them to a small child).

Try to think about using all of the senses where possible as there may be people with lesser sight or a diminished sense of smell who may not get the benefit of a photograph of a famous celebrity or a lavender-scented sachet. A mixture of items is desirable including some music from an era that the person would recognise and possibly some type of foodstuff (fruit cake – weddings, christenings etc). But again, checks must be made beforehand if there are any allergies to be aware of.

With the issue of infection prevention, good hygiene is extremely important – especially if there is a group therapy session. If items are to be passed around, make sure they are thoroughly wiped with sanitiser between participants or, ideally only give one item to each person to hold and discuss. People may need to be seated two metres apart, so make sure there is no background noise that could make it difficult to hear each other and repeat or summarise what each person says to help everyone stay engaged.

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