Sensory Boxes & Other Ideas to Stimulate the Senses

Sensory Boxes & Other Ideas to Stimulate the Senses

Found In: Activities Articles Sensory Dementia

The sensory functions of elders decline as they grow older and this can impact on their feelings of well-being. Multi-sensory stimulation is becoming increasingly popular in nursing homes based on impressive results. Sensory activities contribute to the emotional and physical health of people living with dementia. Sensory activities can be non-verbal; thereby crossing cultural boundaries.
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Everybody experiences the world through the senses.

Sensory function refers to the ability to process information from the outside world through the five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Sensory preferences emerge according to experiences of one’s own life time, starting at birth.

The sensory functions of elders decline as they grow older and this can impact on their sense of wellbeing and diminish communication levels.

Related: Sensory Stimulation for Dementia Care

Multi-Sensory Stimulation

Multi-sensory stimulation is becoming increasingly popular in nursing homes based on the impressive results of numerous research studies into its effectiveness.

Sensory activities contribute to the emotional and physical health of people living with dementia. Sensory activities can be non-verbal; thereby crossing cultural boundaries.

Maintenance and enhancement of the sensory integration process in people living with dementia is essential to healthy living.

What is a Memory Box?

Rummage, Memory or Sensory boxes are containers filled with everyday objects to assist people living with dementia to interact, communicate and reminisce. These activities can also be a soothing form of distraction.

The boxes are created to cater for individual needs or for the general use of residents. The aim is to offer failure free, gentle stimulation of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and movement in a controlled environment.

Benefits of Sensory Stimulation

Among other things it is said to:
  • Improve behaviour and mood
  • Promote alertness
  • Increase brain function
  • Improve communication
  • Boost self-esteem and well-being

Related: Catalog of Sensory Activity Ideas

Facilitation Multisensory Stimulation Activities

Many care homes have a multisensory or Snoezelen room that is not used to its full potential. Sometimes the room is not appealing enough to residents and sometimes staff do not know how to use them effectively.

The recreation and therapeutic purposes of the sensory stimulation program must be considered at all times. Residents should be monitored by well trained staff versed in life enrichment tactics and strategies.

The Activity Coordinator will plan the Multisensory Program, purchase materials, advise and supervise staff as well as offer training for volunteers to assist with the program.

Stimulus overload

Be aware that loud music, flickering lights, shadows and altercations may confuse people living with dementia.

Examples of Multisensory Activities

Multisensory activities are activities that combine two or more senses. In fact most sensory stimulation activities involve two or more of the senses such as:

  • Drawing and listening to classic music
  • Hand-massage and conversation
  • Relaxing on a beanbag while watching colorful landscapes on a TV screen
  • Having nails groomed in a garden setting

Related: Sensory Stimulation with Wind Chimes


Rummage and Sensory Box Ideas

The aim of sensory boxes is to offer the opportunity to stimulate as many senses as possible. This activity is also an opportunity to relax, to contemplate, to reflect, to chat and reminisce.

Sometimes staff will have to demonstrate (depending on age or stage of illness) the activity to engage the person; the emphasis is on enjoyment and participation.

Sensory box activities should be thoroughly supervised.

Here are some ideas for sensory boxes:

Balls box – A large plastic box or a small suitcase of balls in different textures; rubber, plastic, fabric, squishy, baby (with bell inside), goop balls, porcupine balls, massage balls, glow in the dark balls. Any type of exercise ball or tactile ball is suitable. The quantity of balls depends on the size of the box you have.

Cereal Box –A large container (46 x 23 cm or 18 x 9 inches) half-filled with uncooked oats or rice bubbles (Any cereal on sale). Offer spoons, cups and other utensils for exploration.

Kinetic Sand - This sand can be shaped and stretched without separating. Place sand on a large cooking tray and offer safety utensils for exploration. Consult with your management before purchasing.

Seeds - Gather or buy large seeds such as pine cones, waratahs, acorns, jacaranda, or whatever seeds you have on hand e.g. avocado seeds, coconut, peach pit. NOTE: Be mindful of safety risks; insert small seeds into zip-lock plastic bags to avoid choking. Seeds can provide a variety of different textures, shapes and sizes to explore..

Food – Place a few boiled eggs or peeled bananas on a plate along with plastic cutlery. Demonstrate cutting the food and encourage residents to cut and taste it.

Creating Multisensory Spaces

The addition of multisensory spaces to your facility may inspire residents to explore, interact or have somewhere where they can ‘just be’. Here are a few ideas:

Office – Create a working office in a corner of your facility for people who insist they have to ‘go to work’. Use an office desk, computer, files, pens and highlighters, a hole punch, in-out trays etc

Virtual Forest – There are many things you can do to bring nature inside your facility. Use the bark of trees; stringybark (used in aboriginal paintings), birch, sycamore. You can use twigs, moss planted in pots, small tree branches and grasses, palm leaves, banana leaves, bird of paradise leaves, and ferns.

Rummage dresser - Set up a three or four drawer dresser in a corner of your facility and fill it with everyday items such as doilies, napkins, beanies, colored socks, scarves, baby clothes, tea towels, and other items. Some people may enjoy to sort and organize them.

Outdoor garden shed – Raised garden beds, an old plastic wheelbarrow, potting mixture, garden tools, and buckets.

Old car – Buy an old car that is still in reasonable condition (perhaps it could be donated if you spread the word around) and place it in the backyard of your facility, under a carport or driveway. Residents may feel compelled to ‘wash’ it, ‘fix’ it, or just sit in it.

This is just a start! There are many more stimulating areas worth trying: familiar foods, texture-rich materials, reading, massage, painting, outings, and music.

Connecting with the senses is a valuable way to communicate with people living with dementia.

Related: Snoezelen Rooms & Sensory Environments for Dementia Care


We'd love to hear your feedback. What has worked for you?

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Karen 2nd Mar 2019 Companion
I've tried having a bowl of different coloured pompoms and coloured clothes pegs. the idea is to attempt to pick up a pompom the same colour as the peg. It has to be on a tray with a lip or in a bowl because the pompoms get away. I've discovered that having just a single peg on the table (I'm doing this as one-to-one) works much better, less distraction. Usually lots of laughs as the pom pom skitters away. The exercise doesn't work as well in the evening and works best with primary colours.
Also, with 4 people and 4 balls rolling around the table top in different directions, absolute involvement and laughter. Of course I was chasing the ones that went on the floor. People did get tired fairly soon so I just quickly put them away, except for one which seemed to have disappeared until we found it hidden, tightly squeezed, in a resident's hand. :)
Solange 3rd Mar 2019 Diversional Therapist
Hi Karen, what a great activity! It is Montessori-based and ideal for 1-2-1 or small groups. Good on you for having made the activity more practical.
Stephen Walker 21st Jul 2018
I agree wholeheartedly that mental stimulation is essential to ward off dementia. I have MS and experience severe "brain fog". I am teaching myself Spanish and while my linguistic ability is not improving, my mental faculties is much sharper.
Talita 22nd Jul 2018
This is wonderful to hear Stephen! Thanks so much for your feedback and all the very best to you.
Yamilee 27th Mar 2018 Speech Language Pathologist
I am a new member and I'm enjoying reading about all these great ideas. I am especially drawn to the tactile and olfactory sensory activities as most of my clients suffer from various degrees of hearing, visual and fine motor impairments.
Thank you so much
Talita 31st Mar 2018
Thanks so much for your feedback Yamilee!
Sarah 2nd Mar 2017 Nurse
I have used small plastic lunch boxes, filled one with uncooked rice, one with water, another with scented sheets the list can go on and on, this makes the activity easier and a great 1:1 session.
Pamela LeBlanc 18th Jun 2016
I use a 20 gallon tote and put shredded paper, the strips not the cross cut paper as this causes dust and may effect people with allergies. I use clothes pins, marbles, plastic spoons, a little plastic piggy bank, small candles(like tea lites), little river rocks, even colorful small feathers. We make a game of it and give points for the items. Highest score wins and I give lil surprise bags that have sugar free candies in them like Worthers Originals (sugar free). We enjoy this as an activity. Have fun use you imagination and create themes like holidays, birthdays, or seasons.
Karen 8th Mar 2019 Companion
Sounds like you make a lot of effort Pamela. Can I come? :) Just a wee note, results recently that artificial sugars are definitely bad for folks with or at risk of Alzheimer's. I spoke with the nurses where I have clients and she said that unless there are serious diabetes problems and they are being monitored, that a single ordinary candy is okay. It's all a bit screwy anyway. The people with diabetes are supposed to watch their sugar intake but everyone gets those fruit juices full of fructose and little else.
At least while they are having fun with your activities they aren't drinking fake cranberry juice. :)
I've never personally given rewards for anything, but I've seen some of the other rec folks offer rewards for games (ie: Bingo), sometimes sweets but sometimes these are very small seasonal decorations. Dollar store packages of mini trees or bells or shamrocks, or .... Of course, it depends on whether or not your folks are likely to put it in their mouths... When I first started I took this lovely lady in late dementia the first daffodil from my garden. She looked at it, smiled at me and bit into it! Ah well, she wasn't poisoned. it's an ongoing process of discovery. So much fun!
Talita 29th Mar 2016
Thanks for the feedback ladies, this is much appreciated.
Chandani 25th Mar 2016
I found all these ideas are really great fun and I am sure my residents @ nursing home they will enjoy them Also help to refresh my knoladge and skills please send me more ideas I really appreciate your kind support
Heather 1st Nov 2015 Recreation Activities Officer
Thank you for this, I have just set up my sensory boxes from this list and really looking forward to using them with our residents. I am so excited to start this session.
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