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Dementia on the beach

By Cretien van Campen

Would you take a person with dementia to the beach?

This might not really be an idea you would think of. There are several possible constraints: difficulty with travel, for example, being one. And what if, having succeeded in getting the dementia sufferer there and back, the next day you asked if they enjoyed their day out and he or she just stared at you with a confused gaze as if to ask, ‘what are you talking about?’

If you think it makes little sense to take persons with dementia to the beach, it will surprise you that a nursing home in Amsterdam has built a Beach room. In this room, residents can enjoy the feeling of sitting in the sun with their bare feet in the sand. The room is designed to improve the well-being of these residents. The garden room at the centre of the home has recently been converted into a true ‘beach room’, complete with sand and a ‘sun’ which can be adjusted in intensity and heat output. A summer breeze blows occasionally and the sounds of waves and seagulls can be heard. The décor on the walls is several metres high, giving those in the room the impression that they are looking out over the sea. There are five or six chairs in the room where the older residents can sit. There are also areas of wooden decking on which wheelchairs can be parked. The designers have even managed to replicate the impression of sea air.

Multisensory ‘Beach room’ in the Vreugdehof care centre, Amsterdam.
Multisensory ‘Beach room’ in the Vreugdehof care centre, Amsterdam.

Visits to the beach room appear to have calming and inspiring effects on residents of the nursing home. One male resident used to go to the beach often in the past and now, after initially protesting when his daughter collected him from his bedroom, feels calm and content in the beach room. His dementia hinders us from asking him whether he remembers anything from the past, but there does appear to be a moment of recognition of a familiar setting when he is in there.

Evidence is building through studies into the sensorial aspects of memorizing and reminiscing by frail older persons in nursing and residential homes. Several experimental studies have noted the positive effects of sense memories on the subjective well-being of frail older persons. For instance, one study showed that participants of a life review course including sensory materials had significantly fewer depressive complaints and felt more in control of their lives than the control group who had watched a film.

The Beach Room is an example of a multisensory room that emanates from a specific sensorial approach to dementia. The ‘Snoezelen’ approach was initiated in the Netherlands in the late 1970s. The word ‘Snoezelen’ is a combination of two Dutch words: ‘doezelen’ (to doze) and ‘snuffelen’ (to sniff ). Snoezelen takes place in a specially equipped room where the nature, quantity, arrangement, and intensity of stimulation by touch, smells, sounds and light are controlled. The aim of these multisensory interventions is to find a balance between relaxation and activity in a safe environment. Snoezelen has become very popular in nursing homes: around 75% of homes in the Netherlands, for example, have a room set aside for snoezelen activities.

On request by health care institutions, artists have taken up the challenge to design multisensory rooms or redesign the multisensory space of wards (e.g. distinguished by smells) and procedures (cooking and eating together instead of individual microwave dinners). Besides a few scientific evaluations, most evidence is actually acquired from collaborations of artists and health professionals at the moment. The senses are often a better way of communicating with people affected by deep dementia. Like the way that novelist Marcel Proust opened the joys of his childhood memories with the flavour of a Madeleine cake dipped in linden-blossom tea, these artistic health projects open windows to a variety of ways of using sensorial materials to reach unreachable people.

So, would you take a person with dementia to the beach? Yes, take them to the beach! It can evoke Proust effects and enhance their joy and well-being. Although, we still do not know what the Proust effect does inside the minds of people with dementia, we can oftentimes observe the result as an enhanced state of calmness with perhaps a little smile on their face. People with dementia who have lost so much of their quality of life can still experience moments of joy and serenity through their sense memories.

Cretien van Campen is a Dutch author, scientific researcher and lecturer in social science and fine arts. He is the founder of Synesthetics Netherlands and is affiliated with the Netherlands Institute for Social Research and Windesheim University of Applied Sciences. He is best known for his work on synesthesia in art, including historical reviews of how artists have used synesthetic perceptions to produce art, and studies of perceived quality of life, in particular of how older people with health problems perceive their living conditions in the context of health and social care services. He is the author of The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories.

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Image credits: Multisensory ‘Beach room’ in the Vreugdehof care centre, Amsterdam. Photo: Cor Mantel, with permission from Vreugdehof.

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