Boosting cognition in the elderly through sensory rooms

  • 5 June 2019

Multisensory rooms are an excellent resource for the elderly, and the SHX System technology allows them to become an even more powerful therapeutic tool. With age, certain abilities begin to deteriorate, particularly if they are not put to use.

It is increasingly common for nursing homes and health centers to have multisensory rooms available for the care of the elderly. This is thanks to their flexibility and the variety of possible applications in this user group that may present progressive sensorial, motor, cognitive and social impairment. Many neurodegenerative diseases have a higher incidence among the elderly population. Among them, dementia is a major concern, due to the impact it can have on the person’s wellbeing, family and immediate circle of friends. The effects of these diseases limit personal autonomy even from the early stages and reduce participation in all kinds of activity.  This lack of participation in purposeful activity carries with it increasing feelings of frustration and insecurity that highlight changes in one’s state of mind – such as apathy, mood swings and agitation – and may lead to isolation, disconnection and behavioral disorders. Studies have shown that a combination of pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical therapies is the most effective method of delaying impairment and improving the quality of life of those affected. Tailored stimulation that includes purposeful activity involving different cognitive, sensory, motor and social processes helps people to be active and participative. This, in turn, helps to slow impairment, while improving personal autonomy and quality of life, and creating a more positive state of mind.

Using multisensory environments as a therapeutic strategy improves emotional state and behavior, complements medication and reduces the need for physical containment measures. Moreover, SHX multisensory rooms offer these types of activities by creating consistent content that stimulates different sensory pathways. The content is adapted to each person, and takes into account their background and life history, their current situation, their needs and interests and includes multiple intervention objectivesSHX multisensory rooms allow a return to basics. The software can be programmed to allow the user to return to controlled activities involving basic stimuli that are simple, pleasant and consistent. They can be adapted to each individual and give access to cognitive stimulation of varying levels of complexity. SHX rooms help to compensate for reduced mobility, be used to apply complex and powerful stimuli such as music, and encourage connection and communication, which are a major source of wellbeing.

A return to basics

Boarding a noisy train, we hear its destination being announced in several languages over the public address system. There are two high steps up into the train, and there is another passenger waiting impatiently behind us. Two passengers ahead are speaking in teen slang while the smell of their snack wafts through the carriage. A screen on the platform is reflected in the train window, indicating the time, the current temperature…

We often navigate highly complex surroundings with diverse stimuli that can prove both variable and stressful. This can be a challenge even to people with no cognitive difficulties. Elderly people may feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed in environments in which they are exposed to several stimuli at once. This is even more so in the case of people with dementia or age-associated cognitive decline.

Multisensory rooms allow environmental control in order to provide basal stimulation through simple activities, even if the user’s more complex cognitive functions are impaired. Enjoying harmonious music, a beautiful landscape, an aroma, or a simple but attractive light source in a pleasant and non- threatening environment are meaningful and pleasurable activities for many people.

Adapting the room to different sensory abilities

Elderly people often present sensorial decline such as presbyopia, age-related hearing loss, and the loss of the sense of touch, which can hinder sensory stimulation and lead to isolation from the outside world. In addition to this, the gradual loss of mobility also affects sensory pathways which are fundamental to their wellbeing. The active management and adjustment of the different elements in multisensory rooms to each sensory system can allow us to stimulate and provide input to the most impaired senses. For example, powerful visual stimuli such as bubble tubes and fiber optic light sources improve skills such as tracking and following, focusing, spatial and depth awareness, as well as hand-eye coordination. The less impaired senses can also be used to compensate for difficulties arising from sensory decline to allow the user to continue to enjoy a meaningful experience while participating in the activities. For example, a person with hearing loss can use the vibroacoustic equipment to enjoy the sounds in a video. Multisensory environments can help to group stimuli into meaningful units to improve overall sensory integration. Elderly people benefit from experimentation and unrestrained interaction with lights, noise, smells and tactile materials, as these activities help to maintain and coordinate the sensory systems.

Reminiscence and life story work

One of the great advantages of SHX multisensory rooms, in comparison to more basic software, is their ability to offer and manage personalized and consistent content that can match images, audio, video or vibrations with sounds or lighting. They can be used to explore each user’s life history, search for information on the internet or other sources, find historical content, past activities, family photographs, music and songs, or even old radio or television programs. The experience created by the content in SHX multisensory rooms is enhanced thanks to the non-threatening environment that is created, in addition to the combination of available resources: large-format projection; the possibility of whole-body vibroacoustic stimulation (which is a sensation closely linked to the emotional system); producing an immersive effect within the room by using the lighting in coordination with the image being projected; and highlighting selected moments in the content with the aid of additional sensory elements such as cold or heat, air, bubbles or projections. In this way, SHX rooms enhance the user’s connection with their own memories, allowing them the pleasure of reliving enjoyable experiences in an intense way, and using these same experiences to influence other cognitive aspects.

In addition to working with the episodic and retrograde memory, other specific exercises can also be undertaken in this privileged environment. For example, grouping activities can be done with images or sounds, or both together; executive functions can be stimulated with a series of colors in the bubble tube, in which the user must try to predict the next one; images and sounds can be recognized and associated; and different scenes can be recalled and identified.

Cognitive stimulation

Both the use of primary stimuli and immersive scenes allow activities of different levels of complexity to be designed. These can be used to perform tailored cognitive therapy to suit the abilities and limitations of every user at each stage of their therapy. A wide selection of sensory combinations can be created in SHX multisensory rooms, with an emphasis on those that are most comfortable and pleasurable for the user. They can be focused on several therapeutic objectives such as concentration, memory, speech and language, breathing, and psychomotor abilities within an environment that is undemanding, consistent, pleasant and easy to understand. If the user perceives and assimilates the stimuli well, they will feel less threatened and stressed – and, therefore, more capable – in their surroundings. This, in turn, will adjust their levels of awareness and attention, and leave them more inclined to participate in an activity. There are infinite possibilities for interaction with the SHX System to undertake therapeutic activities that not only stimulate the memory, attention, concentration, anticipation, classification, association, discrimination, and language, but also improve agnosia and apraxia amongst other symptoms.

Compensating for the loss of mobility

Progressive, age-related loss of mobility in the elderly is both limiting and the source of many difficulties. Moreover, it entails the impairment of sensory pathways related to the tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive systems, which involve balance, movement, position and spatial orientation. The undemanding, familiar and safe environment provided by multisensory rooms allows the user to explore comfortably and encourages them to move freely through their surroundings. It also stimulates basic sensory systems such as the proprioceptive, tactile and vestibular, helping to compensate for impairment and facilitating auto regulation. As an example, a vestibular stimulus such as a seesaw can create a feeling of wellbeing in the user, or proprioceptive and deep tactile sensations that will make them feel more secure and connected with themselves and their surroundings.

Music, Maestro, Please!

Music has myriad therapeutic and recreational applications for every user: work with emotions, rhythm, mobility, coordination, and participation, among others. It is processed in various different areas of the brain, making it an extremely powerful stimulus on both a conscious and an unconscious level. When used with the elderly, music has proven to be a great motivator and animator of any activity; it has an extraordinary ability to create a positive mood. Recorded music can be played in multisensory rooms, and lighting effects can be added, either throughout the room or on a specific element such as the bubble tube, which can change color in time with the music. Special, highly personalized environments can be created with the addition of these lighting effects, vibroacoustic signals or different types of projections.

Furthermore, different musical instruments can be integrated in the room, along with other elements such as Beamz, which either allow music to be created simply and easily, or can be used with SHX Controllers to reproduce notes or music samples with any additional effects that may be desired. In this way, stimulation with music ceases to be a passive listening exercise combined with other elements and becomes an activity that requires active and creative participation.

Connection, communication and wellbeing

The SHX System’s versatility and the therapeutic potential of the equipment in multisensory rooms allow personalized activities and environments to be created. These can be designed to prove both pleasant and relevant to each user, and be as simple or sophisticated as necessary. These pleasurable and non-threatening sensations enable the user to connect with their environment, and create a positive context for communication with their caregivers or family. This communication is achieved at the user’s own assimilation level; it may be something as simple as a shared look or a smile. These feelings of comfort promote wellbeing in the user, and improve their predisposition to undertake further activities. This, in turn, creates an optimum therapeutic environment for both the user and their immediate circle, increasing their level of participation.

More information

If you would like to request more information on our SHX System or our multisensory environments, feel free to contact us–our consultants will be delighted to advise you. Alternatively, you can visit our website here.


This article was created by the team at BJLive! in collaboration with Sandra Abad Galdeano, Occupational Therapist at the Elvira Otal Foundation and Ana Aznar Calvo, Occupational Therapist at the Santa Ana Healthcare Center that is managed by SARquavitae.

Written by:

The team at Qinera

Qinera produces assistive technology for people with disabilities with the aim of improving their autonomy and life quality. Its human team includes: occupational therapists, special education teachers, speech therapists, engineers, IT developers and experts in assistive technology.

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Written by:

Sandra Abad Galdeano

Sandra Abad Galdeano, Occupational Therapist at the Elvira Otal Foundation.  

Read more posts

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