12 minute read
In this post you’ll uncover exactly what is involved with creating a sensory space in a modern care environment. We also give you the tools you need to get started, complete with a list of recommendations and links to great products and resources to help you create an amazing resource that is well-loved and well-used by residents and staff.
What is a sensory room?
A sensory room can be a powerful aid to help individuals manage how alert they feel – sometimes we ‘over-respond’ to stimuli and sometimes we ‘under-respond’. For some people this mismatch can be a major source of distress and discomfort and, as a consequence, affect their ability to engage in everyday tasks or situations.
A sensory room is designed to be a safe place where a person is able to explore different ways to ‘sync’ their level of alertness or arousal to the physical or social environment at hand.
One individual might use a sensory room to explore how to modulate their response to stimuli (to deescalate) whilst another might use a sensory room to work with a therapist or other caregiver to become more skilful in sensory integration. People with cognitive impairment may gain great benefit from spaces which can be used for relaxation, for social integration, and for activities which offer intense stimulation.
Sensory rooms come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the corner of a bedroom or lounge designed for just one person to large communal spaces. And if money is no object, there are amazing sensory bathrooms and pools. One thing they all have in common though, is careful, thoughtful design that starts with the intended user(s) of the space, and one that engages all seven senses.
The 7 senses
- Vision (Visual): Details about what we see helps us to define boundaries as our brain processes colour, contrast, shape, and movement
- Touch (Tactile): Keeps us in contact with our surroundings and is an important way of communicating. Feeling temperature, light touch, deep pressure, vibration, pain are all essential to our survival
- Smell (Olfactory): We use the sense of smell in many ways – to identify and to remember
- Hearing (Auditory): Provides us with details about the sounds we hear such as volume, pitch, rhythm, tone, and sequence
- Taste (Gustatory): Gives us feedback on the different types of tastes, and is again essential to survival
- Vestibular (Balance): Gives us information about movement, gravity, and changing head positions – even with our eyes closed
- Proprioception (body and place mapping): This sense processes information from our body to provide us with an unconscious awareness of the position of our body parts in relation to each other—and their relation to other people and objects. It influences feelings of hunger or needing to use the bathroom
Who uses a sensory room?
Sensory rooms can bring benefits to a wide range of people. There is evidence that individuals of all ages with autism, ADHD, dementia and other conditions with sensory processing problems report positive impacts on behaviour, feelings of wellness and capability.
Staff groups too can benefit from access to a sensory room. Growing numbers of organisations are offering ‘wobble’ or ‘rainbow’ rooms to help staff cope with the increased pressures of caring in the time of Covid. One study of mental health nurses, for example, found that short breaks in a sensory room led to physiological (reduced pulse rate) and self-reported enhancement in providing holistic care and problem solving compared to time spent in a staff lounge. (Collier, Staal and Homel, 2018).
What are the benefits of a sensory room?
- Calming Effects
- Sensory stimulation
- Improved Focus
- Motor Skills Development
- Cognitive Development
- Sensory Development
Where should I locate my sensory room
In many cases, options about where to locate your sensory room will be constrained by your building. Where there is more than one option, you’ll need to think about:
- How many people at one time? Many care facilities choose a space that can accommodate 4-6 people at a time, and use curtains to screen off smaller areas for 1-1 work
- Do you intend for a person to use the room alone or with a caregiver? If the person will use the room on their own, what kind of supervision is appropriate and where might the person providing that supervision need to be. You'll want to balance ensuring the space is not in the thick of things with also making it possible for caregivers to provide appropriate supervision and support as needed whilst also, perhaps, undertaking other tasks
- Do you want the person to travel to the sensory room unaccompanied? If so, you’ll want to check they feel comfortable with the route
- What is going to be the travel time to and from the room, and how might this impact on scheduling access?
- Ideally, your sensory room will open out into outdoor space so that you can expand what’s on offer in the ‘sensory diet’
- However, you also need a space where you can exclude light, particularly if the people using the room will want to use it to help modulate their responses. When residents are asked about what they most value about their sensory room experiences, they cite the ability to have total blackout (alongside feeling in control of the space and not being interrupted!)
How should I involve sensory room users
Your sensory room will likely be better (and better used) if you include both staff and residents in the process of designing and creating it. Why not:
- Ask for any suggestions and/or donations of time to help with organizing the project
- Share a short survey with staff and residents for ideas regarding how to decorate the room and what to offer in the space (consider using a quick and free tool like Survey Monkey– and offer computer access to make it easy for staff and residents to complete it)
- Make it easy for staff and residents to tell you what you might not want to hear. for example, activities that are messy or fiddly to set up and tidy away are likely to end up not being used but people might be embarrassed to admit it
- Ask staff and/or residents to visit sensory spaces in other facilities and review what they liked
- Run a competition to name the room
Don’t forget you’ll need to make sure everyone knows what’s an appropriate use of the space, so you can also work together with staff and residents to create a Sensory Room Policy.
How much does a sensory room cost?
As a rule of thumb, you can expect to pay anything from around £5,000 up to £30,000 depending on the size of the room, the amount of renovation needed and the equipment you may decide to include… and some of the examples shown below can run well into six figures!
But you don't have to start there. In fact, it can be useful to experiment with a couple of low-cost approaches so you can see what works for residents and staff before you commit to a significant financial outlay. You might begin with introducing sensory enhancements into communal spaces or co-create a sensory corner in a resident’s bedroom.
A great, low-cost starting point can be to have a number of ‘sensory baskets’ for example fresh seasonal nature items to sort through, touch and smell, or perhaps a grooming or nail-care basket. Try and offer part of an experience that a resident may have loved before – a breadmaker might still enjoy kneading dough whilst a gardener might welcome filling pots with compost. You might create a ‘tactile trolley’ with a weighted blanket or lap pad, a box of sandpaper and wood samples, and material squares to sort through and manipulate.
Top tips to create a sensory room on a budget
- Visual: A small bubble tube light will cost around £200 whilst larger models can be as much as £2000. A good alternative to specialist sensory lighting are LED Christmas lights. Lava lamps have cool retro appeal (but these are a strictly no-touch option), whilst a glitter ball or even a normal table lamp that you can pop a coloured bulb into are easy to find. Practical things like changing a switch to dimmable, and having sufficient indirect (rather than overhead) lighting can make an instant difference for a few pounds. Experiment with ‘slow TV’ – long play programmes like this or this or this
- Auditory: Get that old CD player out of the loft and buy some inexpensive relaxing sound CD's in your local charity shop or online. You could also create a basket of musical instruments such as xylophones and maracas - an interactive way of enhancing auditory skills with a dash of noisy fun!
- Touch: A DIY ball pit is surprisingly popular across all age groups; just add a bag of ball pool balls to an inflatable paddling pool. Soft blankets and weighted blankets provide relief to many, alongside age-appropriate fidget objects (like cushions with tassels and loops). Cut plush or other tactile fabrics into animal shapes and frame them for low cost sensory wall panels. Offer wheat pillows that can be heated or frozen to provide stimulating changes in temperature
- Smell: an aromatherapy burner can help trigger profound relaxation; offer a range so that residents can choose for themselves. Create scent pots – small boxes with dried cinnamon, cardamom, mint and basil.
- Balance: include different types of seating – a bean bag, repurpose a nursing/rocking chair. You could also look at wobble boards for the more active.
Tips to make your sensory room a success
- Include residents and staff in the design process – potentially you're going to spend a lot of money, don’t let it go to waste through lack of use
- Train staff in the use of the room (not just how to turn the gadgets on and off) and invite them to share practice
- Make it age appropriate. A lot of (wonderful!) sensory room products are created for children and young people but if used for older people may not respect their dignity. There are products on the market that hit the right note like this
- Don’t have too stark a contrast between the style of the sensory room and the rest of your building. This can be confusing and worrying for residents
- Give as much control as possible to the people using the room – install switches that are easy (and fun) to operate like theseand include lockable storage in the room for items that require supervised use
- Make it culturally inclusive
5 ways to improve an existing sensory room
f you have been using a sensory room for a while, check out the tips below for ways you might make it even better.
- Remove any natural light – residents highly value blackout to help with modulation so try to cover windows with black out blinds or a sticky film if you can
- Make the walls and surfaces in the room soft - Make an assessment of the space, can you make it even more user friendly by installing foam flooring and walls. Here with the added hygiene benefit of being easy to clean and disinfect after each use. Just a note here to make sure you consider how wheelchairs and hoists may need to interact with the space and build in the turning room and surfaces which accommodate this
- Consider water – Very often, having a bath can be a real treat – especially if the focus is on enjoying the experience rather than getting clean! If your room is big enough and has plumbing options, you could consider installing a hydrotherapy bath which includes different coloured lights and different tempo water jets. Don’t forget you can put on a brilliant light show in the room whilst they are in the bath too...
- What does your choice of colour suggest - Something as simple as rethinking the colours you have used on the walls and floors of the room can make a big difference to the ambiance of the room. Check out this handy colour and mood guide to help you in your choice. Plain white is a popular choice in sensory rooms as it allows you to use projected lights really creatively to change the look and feel of the room. You can also choose to paint walls and ceilings in handy waterproof options which you may normally use in bathrooms or kitchens; ideal for a communal space which needs to stay hygienic