When Emma was having one of her days of being particularly sleepy, I found myself looking around her room. She has an array of flowers and soft toys that I had brought in, a stained-glass picture of a bird on her window, and the postcards that I had sent her across the pandemic – which the staff had kindly put up on the walls – but it still didn’t seem like enough. The room felt cold and unfriendly. I believe a lot of it had to do with the lighting. Emma usually has her main light switched off, making her room quite dark, especially when her curtains are closed, as she often naps throughout the day. Although Emma’s sight is quite poor, she can still sense light on her skin and often responds when I switch on the light and open her curtains.
I decided to do all that I could to promote a more sensory experience for her in her room, but I was mindful that her funds were low. I thought I would start with her sense of smell. The first thing that came to mind was lavender. Not only does it have a calming effect, but I remember how Emma had told me that her grandmother grew lavender in her garden. She would often visit her grandmother and would count the bees that were buzzing around the delicate flowers. In earlier visits, we had made lavender bags with each other, and she would tell me fond stories of her grandmother and how she used to play in her garden with her brother. She told me about those sunny days that seem to last forever when you’re young; she would often spend summers running carefree in the garden playing chase, and lying down on the grass looking up and finding shapes in the clouds. She told me how her grandmother would teach her how to look after the flowers, the names of the wild birds that came to visit, and the names of the wildflowers and weeds.
Emma would often talk of this time in her life, and it seemed that this was when she was the happiest. So, I thought about what I could do to recreate these times. I came across some lavender mist that you can lightly spray a room with, and which I thought would make a good start. I also had the idea of using a cd of the sounds of a garden. I had already bought one of bird song, which Emma absolutely loved. I found one that had the sound of buzzing bees, the gentle wind blowing, the rhythm of the trees and the hum of life that you only hear when you really stop to listen. It reminded me of lazy summer days, and you could almost sense the warmth on your skin and the smell of the flowers.
Next, I turned to the lighting, as I felt this would make a real difference. I understood that, as Emma spends her time lying in bed, a strong light overhead would be too much. However, having the light off created a dim, cold-feeling room. As a middle ground, I thought of a small light to the side of her, projecting out different colours in the room – I learnt that colours are effective to create different moods. Blues and greens are restful, yellows can be stimulating and trigger cognitive function, oranges and reds can increase brain activity through the strong contrasts, and pink has a wonderful soft calming tone.
At the moment, we are working on implementing the sensory experiences in Emma’s room. I will feed back once I have had more of a chance to try the different ideas on my visits. But, for now, I was thrilled to hear from a carer that they had used the new light in Emma’s room. They had all marvelled at the different colours and Emma had loved watching the blue ‘waves’ on the ceiling. The carer wanted to know where I had bought the light as she would love to suggest it for other people living with dementia. This was a huge win for me and really made my day.
I am really looking forward to my next visit. Even if Emma is sleepy, by setting up a sensory experience for her, maybe I can reach her in her dreams and remind her of her fondest memories.