Focus on 5 Senses Drives Better Senior Living Design, Operations 

Though many older adults experience some kind of sensory impairment as they age, the problem doesn’t stop with vision and hearing. Taste, smell and touch can also dull as people age, but not every senior living community takes that into account.

With that in mind, providers could do much more to help design “sense-sensitive” environments for seniors, according to a new report from global food services giant Sodexo and the University of Ottawa.

The “Five Senses Study” is aimed at getting long-term care communities to think more about the sensory needs of their residents, according to Marc Plumart, Sodexo’s CEO for Heatlhcare and Seniors.


“We’re focused on quality of life, how [people can] live with joy, dignity and independence,” Plumart told Senior Housing News.

Becoming sense-sensitive

Unaddressed sensory impairments can intensify feelings of isolation and depression for older adults, the study showed. Though personal sensory aids such as glasses and hearing aids can help make those impairments more manageable, there are also some operational changes senior living providers can undergo to become more sense-sensitive.


And addressing hearing problems is important: research cited in the study noted 80% of all people over the age of 85 will experience noticeable hearing loss.

One way providers can make communities more comfortable for people with hearing impairments, for example, is to play soothing music or nature sounds. The right kind of auditory stimulation can help enhance residents’ moods and promote relaxation, according to the study.

Senior living providers may also want to reduce unnecessary background noises and put an emphasis on resident privacy. This might mean installing sound-absorbing materials or sound-masking devices, designating separate “quiet” areas within a community or creating new housekeeping or maintenance schedules that don’t disturb residents.

Older adults also often live with a variety of conditions that affect vision, such as glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration.

Another senior housing design tip the researchers identified was using red night lights in hallways or bathrooms to make it easier for residents to navigate at night. Those lights also have the least effect on the circadian rhythm, meaning they won’t disrupt sleep patterns, according to the researchers.

Providers might also consider installing carpeting to reduce glare, creating contrasts between certain colors, and making sure all signage is clear and easy to read.

Taste, smell and touch

Senior living providers would do well to remember that a seniors’ ability to taste can change over time, the study noted. When a resident experiences a decrease in the sense of taste, they can lose interest in food. Adding texture to food and cooking with quality ingredients can help increase palatability, the study said.

Providers can also plan menus with plenty of variety and choice, offer finger foods or easy-to-eat foods for residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and involve residents in mealtime preparation or dining. Many senior living communities are already experimenting with ways to overhaul their memory care dining programs.

Along those same lines, candles, sensory gardens or even cooking and baking smells from the kitchen can all help boost resident satisfaction and trigger nostalgic memories, the researchers noted.

Providers should also take into consideration the location of laundry, storage and waste areas so that unwanted odors are directed away from where residents spend most of their time.

Some conditions that affect the sense of touch, such as Parkinson’s and diabetes, are more prevalent in older adults, making touch an important sense to keep in mind, according to the researchers.

Providers should meet residents’ physical needs by conducting things like “head to toe” assessments that check for injuries or other areas that need treatment. They should also try not to discourage residents’ needs for physical intimacy and sexual expression.

Animal therapy visits, individually controlled heating and cooling units and outdoor areas sheltered from the elements can also help residents feel more at ease.

Read the full report here.

Written by Tim Regan

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