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Making sense: one Alzheimer's treatment

Someone's giving you a fantastic hand massage and all around are the lights of a Pink Floyd concert, the sound of crashing waves and the bracing scent of sandalwood. It's not a fantasy; it's Snoezelen.

Pronounced SNOOZE-e-len, the multi-sensory technique that doubles as a recreational opportunity is being offered in 200 sites across Canada.

Snoezelen comes from the Netherlands, and owes its unique name to its Dutch roots. Caregivers in Holland noticed children with disabilities benefited from a highly stimulating environment. Tense muscles relaxed, attention spans increased, speech patterns changed, children enjoyed the environment, and the effects lasted for some time afterwards.

News of the program spread and Snoezelen gained popularity throughout the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In 1992, Snoezelen arrived at Toronto's Bloorview Macmillan Centre for Children with Disabilities. Since then, an increasing amount of research suggests a highly sensory environment can benefit people of all ages, particularly those with cognitive challenges, such as Alzheimer disease.

Today, some of the more sophisticated Canadian operations use a dedicated Snoezelen room containing an assortment of sensory equipment: bubble tubes, black lights, glowing fibre optics, music, scented oils, and highly tactile surfaces.

At Ottawa's Carlingview Manor, recreation therapist and certified Snoezelen trainer Jennifer Raftis has launched a program that includes both a dedicated room and a mobile Snoezelen cart that rolls out to residents who have difficulty walking.

"We've had some really exciting results with Snoezelen. For example, one resident who was essentially non-verbal joined us in the Snoezelen room and started chatting with her daughter," Raftis says. One of the best parts is that this is self-directed leisure. That's especially important for residents whose conditions limit their choices throughout an average day."

Raftis and the Carlingview Manor recreation team are now looking into a Snoezelen bath for residents who become anxious while bathing.

Fran Roberts, the marketing and communications adviser for the Alzheimer Society of Ontario, is often approached with questions about different forms of programming, including multi-sensory recreation.

Snoezelen can provide an effective channel for communication between a person with Alzheimer's and another individual. This is particularly true late in the disease process when verbal communication skills are significantly impaired, Roberts says.

She cautions that these techniques must be used appropriately. Snoezelen is by no means a quick fix. Its value depends on how well caregivers know their residents and on how well they adapt the program to individual preferences.

Sunrise Senior Living operates a Snoezelen room in each of its homes throughout the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, including Sunrise Richmond Hill near Toronto.

Like Carlingview Manor, Sunrise Richmond Hill has both a dedicated Snoezelen room and a mobile cart in its "Reminiscence Neighbourhood" a floor designed especially for people with dementia. Reminiscence co-ordinator Pat Butcher is a strong advocate of Snoezelen for helping anxious residents.

I've taken somebody who's really sad and crying, introduced them to some of the equipment, and together we build until they feel a little better, and continue building until we end up laughing together, Butcher says. At Sunrise, every resident has access to the Snoezelen room. I leave the door open and have one or two pieces of equipment going the fibre optics or the projector and often find residents relaxing on their own.


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