Research Projects

Designing a sensory product to be enjoyed by people living with dementia

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Close-up of someone's hand using a sensory cushion

A partnership project set-up with Sirona Care & Health to find out about user requirements for a sensory product.

What was needed

People in the later stages of dementia experience often experience restlessness and agitation which can be helped by the use of sensory cushions, clothing, blankets and handheld toys. These kinds of items can be handled and played with to provide comfort and occupation.

Our previous research had found that many sensory products are not robust enough for adult hands, could be perceived to be childlike and lacked appeal to men.

Who will benefit

The cushion we have designed is intended to have mainstream appeal but has been inspired by observations and interactions with people living with dementia and the insights of family and professional carers.

Who or what will it be suitable for?

  • Someone with dementia who still enjoys touching, handling or moving material objects
  • Using on your lap as a soft and portable reminiscence experience
  • Occupation without a challenge

It is important to note that interest and interaction in this sensory cushion is likely to be brief and intermittent, and engagement may be basic, e.g. just holding,stroking or repetitive movement.

Some people with dementia may only be able to explore and engage in the sensation of using their hands when directed to, or physically helped to initiate occupation with the cushion and objects.

Design and development

The first phase of the project was to consult with a network of experts to inform the design and development programme.  Our network included users and carers, Occupational Therapists, Nurses, Health Care Assistants, Activity Co-Ordinators, Day Centre Managers, Nursing Home Managers and Complementary Therapists.

Designability then worked with this network to understand the requirements for a sensory product through a process of semi-structured interviews, observation sessions and interactive design exercises.

Nine personal semi-structured interviews were conducted with carers, care staff and professionals and opinions were recorded about two commercial sensory products for older people.

Five detailed observation sessions of activities of people living with dementia were carried out at a day centre and two nursing homes.  Hour long observations were carried out in a group setting, with notes being made on the natural actions of people with dementia in the room who had not been given an object to handle, or who were making use of their clothing and environment for sensory stimulation.

Stage one explored shape, with rectangular and oblong being most popular.  Participants described a lap-based, portable item.

Colour was explored next with yellows, oranges and blues being most popular.

Participants favoured the use of a base colour, often neutral, with a pop colour to draw attention to design features.

Stage one concluded with texture, which demonstrated participants wanted comforting textures such as warm and soft, with a contrast such as matt or grainy.

Stage two considered integral features, with the most popular feature being pockets or containing.

Finally, we explored add-ons which produced a diverse response, with discovery being the most common theme.

We created seven models and explored the restrictions, versatility, aesthetics and feasibility of each concept.

At the beginning of the project we were expecting personalisation as a common theme.  Through discussion with our network it became apparent by this stage that a template was the best solution, with an option to personalise when appropriate, so we preceded to design and model template solutions.

What we know now

The majority of interviewees identified the benefit of these portable products as a comfort tool and for providing occupation. The behaviours we witnessed in older adults seeking sensory stimulation were described as agitation, anxiety and hand actions. Occupation included folding and sorting and methodical actions. The expectation was that sensory products could be either used alone or with others.

The importance of robustness and management of infection control was highlighted. The interview also asked about appearance with seven of the nine interviewees preferring gender neutral products with an emphasis on age appropriate design.

The most commonly observed action was handling an edge which included running fingers along the edges of clothing, paper, and furniture and feeling the edges of fingers, rings, clothing etc.  Holding was frequently observed including holding hands, clothes and objects. Picking and pulling, most often of clothing, was common.  Arranging, stroking and rummaging or rustling were also noted frequently throughout the visits.