Memory, the senses and retained skills

    The senses

    The senses play a vital role in a person’s wellbeing or illbeing. Sensory stimulation provides us with information about ourselves and the world around us. Its ability to compensate for cognitive deficits can also make it a very useful tool in dementia care.

    The senses could be regarded as a gateway to communication, especially non-verbal communication, which accounts for an estimated 93% of all interpersonal communication.

    Consider the many ways in which the various senses can impact upon us in many ways, often individual to each person. For example:

    • Hearing
      The sound of the ocean, a voice raised in anger, a mocking tone, a favourite song, a child’s laugh, chalk on a blackboard.
    • Vision
      A beautiful view, a smiling baby, the aftermath of a natural disaster, the glare of a headlight.
    • Smell
      Newly mown grass, freshly baked bread, a gas leak, a favourite perfume, acrid smoke.
    • Taste
      Chocolate cake, lemon juice, a hot curry, blue cheese, salt.
    • Touch
      Fur, a velcro tab, the texture of an oyster or castor oil.

    The Sonas programme is one therapeutic activity that uses sensory stimulation because of its ability to trigger memories, foster a feeling of contentment and joy, support self esteem and build relationships.

    Thinking abilities are damaged by dementia. Yet so many other skills and abilities are unaffected, and the ability to communicate through the senses and emotions remains very far into the dementia journey. International evidence shows that feelings and relationships are critically important for a person with dementia.
    The role of memory

    Memory is a very complex area. It involves processing information, storing it, recalling and retrieving it. Different types of difficulties in the process can be associated with different dementias.

    There are also many different types of memory, which are variously affected by dementia. Short term memories are most severely affected and eroded by dementia. These are memories about events, people, places or things that happened recently.

    Other types of memories can be retained and accessed through much of the dementia journey. They include:

    • Long term memories relating to events, people, places or things that happened relatively long ago. Procedural relates to the doing of
      certain learned motor procedures. Examples include walking, talking,
    • Emotional – relates to memories with strong emotional attachments. Examples include significant family or life events.
    • Sensory – memories with strong sensory attachments. Examples include Christmas spices, a particular perfume, a childhood song or taste.

    Retained skills and abilities

    Regarding dementia as a disability, rather than a disease to be treated, can radically change the way in which the person with dementia is supported throughout the journey.

    The transformational effect is well described by Kate Swaffer, an Australian woman with early onset Alzheimer’s.

    kate swaffer
    “Treat the symptoms of dementia as disabilities, rather than a death sentence, as you would if you lost your legs in an accident you would either get fitted with artificial limbs or a wheel chair, go through rehabilitation, and get on with your life accommodating the disabilities.”

    Read Kate’s blog at

    “The ability to observe and appreciate makes people living with Alzheimer’s wonderful listeners and wonderful companions. They see so much that we take for granted and thus overlook, whether walking in the park or through a shopping mall. They have interesting and often funny things to say. The person you love who is living with this illness is a wonderful companion.“ John Zeisel, Founder Hearthstone Alzheimer Care and ARTZ for Alzheimers.