CHENOA — The calming smell of lavender filled the room as Rebecca Perkins brought her mother, Catherine Whitaker, inside.
The lighting was subdued. On one wall, flowing lighting — which made it appear to mother and daughter as if they were looking to the bottom of a pool — was stimulating, yet relaxing.
Perkins took her mother, sitting in a wheelchair, to a ball, which Whitaker squeezed, prompting bubbles to rise in a see-through tube. Every time Whitaker squeezed the ball switch, the color in the tube changed.
“Look, we got green,” her daughter said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Her mother nodded.
When the color switched from green to yellow to red to blue each time Whitaker squeezed the ball, Perkins told her mother “Isn’t it something to think that we’re doing that?”
Perkins, 65, told her mother, 93, that the bubble column reminded her of a Lava Lamp that an aunt and uncle once had. Whitaker nodded again.
Next, she took her mother to a tactile board of different textures. One surface reminded Perkins of an old laundry washboard. She reminded her mother of the ringer washing machine that she used when Perkins was a girl.
“I’m trying to make those little connections,” she said. “Mom is still mom and I love her.”
The latest therapeutic tool in Central Illinois to stimulate and relax people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia actually is a lot of simple tools in one room.
The sensory room at Meadows Mennonite Retirement Community in rural Chenoa is for residents of Meadows’ Skilled Memory Support unit who have Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia.
Dementia slowly robs people of their memory, thinking and appropriate behavior.
While sensory stimulation therapy is used at various long-term care facilities, Meadows apparently is the first facility in the Bloomington-Normal area with a dedicated, fixed sensory room.
“I think this room is an amazing addition to a really wonderful facility,” Rebecca said after spending time with her mother in the room on Jan. 17. Whitaker was diagnosed with dementia several years ago and is at a moderate-to-severe stage, her daughter said.
“When people need a quiet space, this is it,” said Perkins, of Peru.
The sensory room uses everyday objects to stimulate the senses of smell, sight, hearing and touch to evoke positive feelings.
“This (a sensory room) is one of a number of viable options for providing stimulation and engagement for people with dementia, particularly in the later stages,” said Nancy Rainwater, vice president of communications with the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Illinois Chapter.
“It has had some good outcomes,” Rainwater said. “There is published research to support this.”
People with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia experience memory loss to the point that it disrupts their daily life. Frustration, agitation, anxiety and social isolation result.
In some cases, anxiety is so great that psychotropic medication is prescribed, said Meadows Director of Nursing Joleen Hudson.
“Now, we can take residents to the room and calm them down with sensory stimulation,” Hudson said. In the last quarter, fewer doses of psychotropic medicines were given because nurses now have the sensory room to use to try to distract, stimulate and calm residents, she said.
The room works to calm or stimulate anxious, sad or angry residents, Hudson said. “It can address a plethora of emotions.”
When people have trouble recalling and expressing themselves, sensory stimulation can calm, bring back memories and result in a connection with another person, even if that connection is brief, said Memory Care Coordinator Bailey Kemp.
The room also is a form of entertainment for residents with dementia, she said.
“Unfortunately, dementia limits your ability to entertain yourself,” she said. “This creates a piece of entertainment” that is available for residents with dementia to use 24/7 with staff or family member support.
“This is a really good tool for residents who are low-functioning,” Kemp said. “It’s cool for people who don’t talk with anyone or have lack of eye contact.”
Whitaker, who has lived at Meadows since May and whose language has become limited, has periods of anxiety, her daughter said.
When that happens, staff has taken her to the room and she has curled up on the warm, vibrating water bed and has fallen asleep, her daughter said.
“She was no longer agitated,” Perkins said. “She has used it (the sensory room) several times.”
When residents enter the room, the first thing they experience is the calming fragrance of lavender and subdued lighting.
“When you walk in, it’s a feeling of quiet,” Perkins said.
Projected on one wall is the simulated, multi-colored water flowing, which is designed to have a calming effect.
A shimmering illumination curtain of multi-colored strips is for visual and tactile stimulation, Kemp said.
“Mom loves to feel it with her fingers,” Perkins said.
The bubble column is designed to calm residents visually and the accompanying ball switch provides tactile stimulation, Kemp said.
Pillows of various fabrics are for residents to hold for comfort and to experience different tactile stimulation.
“Fidget blankets” made by Perkins are lap blankets made of different textures and colors with several items sewn on to occupy residents who need something to do with their hands. Items include shoelaces, a ball that lights up, blocks and numbers.
“It provides mental stimulation and comfort,” Perkins explained. “It gives you something in your lap to fidget with. When mom is done with it, she likes to fold it.”
The heated, vibrating waterbed relaxes tense muscles and joints and enhances body awareness, Kemp said. Relaxing music may be played while the bed is being used.
Above the bed is a fiber optic curtain that some residents stroke to help them relax as they are lying in the bed.
“Lying in the bed is like getting a hug,” Perkins said.
The tactile board consists of a variety of textures for different tactile sensations designed to elicit different memories.
For example, there’s the part that looks like an old washboard, artificial turf, plastic chains and a mirror.
The sensory room was created in August in what was a resident’s room, thanks to a $12,000 gift from the Parker and Sharon Lawlis family of Normal.
“This is another tool for the staff to calm residents so they’ll have peace,” said Sharon Lawlis, a member of the Meadows Mennonite board. “The staff is finding it so helpful and the residents are responding to it.
“We are proud that we have something cutting edge like this right here in our community,” Lawlis said.
In March, sensory equipment will be added to the Skilled Memory Unit’s sun room and dining room, so more residents will have access to sensory stimulation therapy, said Meadows Mennonite CEO Jay Biere.
That equipment is being paid for by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, Biere said.
“We couldn’t do this without donors and volunteers,” Biere said.
“Our hope,” Lawlis said, “is that this makes the residents’ lives a little calmer, a little better.”