Your memory care unit is a busy place, bustling with resident, staff, and visitor activity. Unfortunately, too much stimulation can create an emotionally unhealthy environment for residents. Here’s how to keep things calm.
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If your senior living community has a memory care unit, you already know how busy it can be. It’s bustling with all sorts of resident, staff, and visitor activity.

All that extra stimulation can increase anxiety and negative behaviors in residents. Here’s how to keep the environment cozy, peaceful, and calm.

What Can Cause Too Much Stimulation

All parts of senior living are busy - even the beginner Activity Professional realizes that within the first few weeks of the job. However, memory care neighborhoods are extra busy, which can sometimes make the residents, guests, and even staff members feel anxious.

Your memory care unit could feel overstimulating because of:

  • Loud conversations around the nursing station
  • Alarms from secured doors around the neighborhood
  • Loud music playing in the dining room, living room, and/or activity room
  • Visitors chatting in the halls or common areas
  • Medication carts or hydration carts being pushed through the halls
  • Harsh fluorescent lighting
  • Small and large group activities happening throughout common areas
  • Wandering residents throughout the hallways
  • Competing smells and scents coming from resident rooms, the dining room, and the staff break room
  • Walkers and wheelchairs throughout the common areas

Overstimulation happens regularly in memory care neighborhoods because there are so many sensory elements competing for attention. If it’s enough to make you feel a bit stressed out or over-excited, imagine what it feels like for residents who live with cognitive challenges.

Why Environment Matters

The environment you are in impacts your concentration and attitude. Think about it: when you need to buckle down and get things done, are you more likely to succeed in a quiet library setting or in a busy coffee shop?

Or, when you are needing an attitude adjustment after a hard day, are you more likely to feel better when sitting by yourself or when dancing around your kitchen with your toddler? While everyone is different and has different preferences, one thing is certain: your environment matters.

When seniors living with dementia or other cognitive challenges are in an environment that is too busy, too loud, or too disorganized, their brains have more difficulty processing all the extra input. Seniors with dementia can become overstimulated quickly. You may see any of these as a result:

  • Signs of anxiety (wringing their hands, hitting themselves, rocking back and forth)
  • Excessive wandering
  • Loud and aggressive words towards staff or other residents
  • Crying
  • Unsafe and risky behaviors (trying to get up from a wheelchair without an assist, etc.)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased fluid intake
  • Decreased activity participation
  • Repetitive questions or expressed worries (more than usual)
  • Increased rummaging or destructive behavior
  • Increased attempts to abscond

How to Create a Calm Environment

While you can’t prevent all types of behaviors or anxiety, you can take steps to alter the environment to make it a calmer and safer one. After all, anxious behaviors (all behaviors, really) are types of communication. 

Fortunately, you can make immediate changes in the environment of your senior living community’s memory care neighborhood that will make a positive impact quickly. And don’t worry - you don’t need a brand new building with all the high-tech bells and whistles to make a difference.

1. Set a routine

Your environment begins with a routine. You don’t necessarily need your neighborhood to be quiet to be calm. Instead, you can create a normal rhythm of the day that is similar to the ups and downs of your own day. Typically, your day starts out slow as you wake up, picks up speed and energy, and then slows down again to prepare for rest. Mimic this rhythm in your daily activities.

Create your daily schedule to include:

  • 5am-8am: Independent activities like matching socks, coffee cart
  • 8am - 11am: Active groups like exercise, outings, cognitive trivia
  • 12pm - 2pm: Wind down activities after lunch like sensory groups or spiritual pursuit
  • 2pm - 5pm: Structured physical outdoor activities like walking club, gardening, etc.
  • 5pm - 10pm: Calming and wind down activities like manicures, sensory based groups, etc.

2. Set the music

If structured routine is the foundation of creating a calm atmosphere in your memory care neighborhood, music is the next layer. You can set the tone for your community by simply selecting the right playlist.

You can play music:

  • In the dining room
  • In your activity room
  • In the halls
  • In individual resident apartments

Music can include:

  • Nature sounds, including birds, water, etc.
  • Crackling fireplace sounds
  • Classical piano or other instrumental music
  • Playlists featuring popular songs from the years your residents were 13-30 years old

Tips for selecting music:

  • Don’t play any music too loudly, unless it is part of your group program, such as exercise.
  • Empower caregivers to know where the playlists are and how to play specific lists during hours you or your staff are not there.
  • Utilize technology like wireless speakers, Google Home, or Amazon Dots throughout your community for music.
  • Avoid upbeat and energizing music during mealtimes.
  • Use calming sounds or playlists during “sundowning” hours in the late afternoon or early evening
  • Encourage caregivers to use softer tones in the afternoon and evening hours when around the nursing station or other busy spots of the community

3. Involve other senses

Creating a calming atmosphere also involves plenty of sensory stimulation. You can incorporate any of these tactics alone, or in combination with others, in your neighborhood.

  • Diffuse calming scents like lavender or chamomile during afternoon and evening hours
  • Spray lavender sheet spray on pillow cases prior to naps or bedtime
  • Diffuse scents like citrus and ginger before meals to increase appetite
  • Plan hand massages or other sensory experiences in the late afternoon or early evening hours
  • Create calming sights for residents to enjoy by incorporating a fish tank, crackling fireplace, or large picture window to look into the garden into your community. You can also cast these images on your community televisions instead of the afternoon or evening newscasts.
  • Host a family activity where residents and family members work together to create photo books of favorite family photos for each resident to keep at bedside

How do you create a calm atmosphere in your busy memory care neighborhood? There are so many great ideas out there that are working - let’s share them in the comments!

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Haley Burress

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Comments   Post a Comment

Susan 18th Jul 2020 Activity Director
Thank you for your kind words and for sharing this information on golden Carers
Evangeline 17th Jul 2020 Registered Manager
Hallo Hayley

Thank you for your incredibly insightful , wonderful account relating to creating a calm environment for our amazing residents. I have taken over a care home that needs TLC and we have made great progress in ensuring that new ideas relating to the importance of sensory rooms being provided to those that are sadly unable to leave them. Staff are encouraged to take time with our residents to get to know them holistically and ensure that their day is calm yet meaningful. Lounges have a quiet area where some residents like to draw or paint with soft music on, an area to watch television and socialise, corridors with seated areas to create a Place to sit in peace or have a chat . The layout is such in our home that there are different types of areas for our residents to suit their mood , personalities. Our pat rabbit ‘Harriet’ has been an amazingly, calming, reassuring source of comfort especially to our residents that are end of life and they just love Harriet to lay with them whilst they stroke her. It is so vitally important that we use all of the senses to ensure our residents’-live’ and not just ‘exist’ and this is what person centred and relationship centred care is about. There is so much learning to be done as our residents change and new residents come and reside with us , we have to ensure that we are able to adapt, predict even sometimes what is needed to help them feel calm and safe. We have such a privileged role in caring for these people and we all have a duty of care to ensure our residents feel valued and respected for the amazing lives they have led and to ensure they feel safe and secure in their new home. I miss being Activities CoOrdinator full time and Ralphland already has an incredible Activity CoOrdinator but as a Manager I try to ensure that my knowledge is passed on and this site has proven an invaluable aid to our care home. Thank you so much for your brilliant ideas. Evangeline
Haley 10th Jul 2020 Recreation Therapist And Writer
Haley submitted a new article: How To Create A Calm Environment For Memory Care
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