How Dementia Affects Your Senses
The term “dementia” encompasses a variety of disorders that change the brain’s ability to function. Many people think of dementia as a memory disorder, and dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, do affect a person’s ability to think, reason and remember. However, dementias affect the entire brain, which also can lead to changes in a person’s hearing, sight, taste, smell and sense of touch. Here are several ways any type of dementia can alter a person’s senses—and how to cope with these changes.
It is common for people to gradually lose their hearing as a result of normal aging processes. Some people think of hearing as a non-essential sense, but the inability to hear clearly causes people to lose their ability to participate in conversations and stay connected to their environment.
Severe hearing loss can make it impossible to locate the source of common sounds, for example, like a ringing doorbell, telephone or blaring television. While most people can cope with some hearing loss and still function normally on a day-to-day basis, the same may not be true for a person with dementia.
In fact, hearing impairment can make a person with dementia feel as if they are living in a cacophony all the time. Being surrounded by unidentified noise can cause over-stimulation and lead to agitation in a person with dementia. You can help the situation by:
Scheduling a hearing exam, and using appropriate hearing aids if necessary
Keeping the environment quiet if sound is agitating someone with dementia
Speaking clearly while facing the person and making eye contact
It is common for a person with dementia to experience various vision impairments. They may lose the ability to easily differentiate colors, for example, so that a wall with two tones of paint may look monochromatic to them. Or they may experience reduced depth perception. This can cause dark patches on a floor, such as black tiles alternating with white ones, to look like dangerous holes.
If a person with dementia has experienced a change in vision, you can help by:
Scheduling regular eye exams and keeping prescription eyeglasses up to date
Clearly marking stair steps with reflective tape
Maintaining adequate lighting inside the home
Although smell and taste are two distinct senses, they are linked in many ways. People with dementia may become unable to discern subtle changes in smell, which can lead to an inability to smell smoke from a fire or tell if food is spoiled. And when taste also becomes impaired, people with dementia may consume spoiled food without knowing it.
Decreased taste also can cause people with dementia to place inappropriate objects or substances in their mouths. You can help with both of these situations by:
Keeping the refrigerator and pantry cleared of any outdated foods
Securing all hazardous objects or substances, including over-the-counter medications and cleaning supplies
Consider providing safe objects for the person to tongue or chew, such as a wooden spoon or teething ring, if they persist in this behavior
Be vigilant about choking hazards and know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver
It is common for the sense of touch to be diminished in people with dementia. This makes them unable to tell how hot running water is or whether or not a stove burner is warm. And because physical touching is a necessary human interaction that contributes to well-being, decreased sensation may cause a person with dementia to feel isolated from other people.
You can address these issues in several ways:
Clearly label hot and cold water taps to avoid scalds
Install shower fixtures that limit warm water temperature
Disconnect small appliances when not in use
Consider using signs to indicate when major appliances like the oven are hot
Provide items that offer a comforting touch sensation, like soft stuffed animals and blankets
When you have permission to physically touch someone with dementia, try gently stroking their head or face, as the additional nerve endings in these areas make sensation easier to perceive.
Dementia takes a significant mental toll on those who experience it, and the gradual impairment of their five senses can make the condition even more unbearable. Your awareness and concern for the sensory effects of a dementia can help keep a person with dementia safe and increase their quality of life.