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How Dementia Patients See the World

Having dementia is like losing your five senses one-by-one. It’s scary and confusing, and the feeling of powerlessness that you have as you slowly lose your memory and cognitive functions is very overwhelming.

Is it any wonder that your loved one starts to change their behavior? How horrible must it feel to have dementia?

Though you can never truly understand unless you feel it for yourself, this article is going to shed some light on what it feels like to have dementia and how you can help your loved one cope with their new reality.

What Are Your Five Senses, And Why Are They Important?

Dementia and the senses

Image courtesy of cedars care group

Your five senses are extremely important to how you function and perceive the world around you. They also help keep you safe from danger and to communicate with those around you.

  • Sight: Being able to see your surroundings in visible light helps you navigate your world and communicate via social interactions, body language, and facial expressions
  • Smell: Picking up scents helps keep you safe. If you smell a fire, you’ll know there’s danger nearby and smelling that your milk is “off” will save you from a nasty bout of food poisoning.
  • Taste: Like your sense of smell, being able to taste what you consume alerts you to the state and quality of the food or drink that you’re putting in your mouth. This is important for digestion
  • Touch: Being able to feel the things you touch is vital for your survival. Feeling the burn from a hot stove will save you from injury, and sensing the cold outside on a freezing winter’s day will keep you from hyperthermia
  • Hearing: Communicating is an essential part of being human. As one of the primary senses that you use to communicate, hearing other people speak is crucial for your socialization abilities, and hearing danger signals like screams or dogs barking will help you stay safe

Now, imagine being a person with dementia who is having trouble with one, two, or even all of these senses. Imagine the fear and loneliness you would feel. Hopefully, I can shed some light on these feelings from what I’ve observed from my Grandpa 

How Does Dementia Affect The Five Senses?

dementia and the five senses

Image courtesy of ParkinsonsDisease.net

Sight

  • May Grandpa lacks spatial awareness, and he needs a walking stick to make sure that he doesn’t walk into things or trip over them
  • I noticed that he began to panic whenever we walked into shopping centers. It was only after a while that I realized the big black mat at the entrance of shopping centers looks like a massive black hole to him, and he was scared to step on it in case he fell through
  • That’s not the only reason my uncle hates shopping centers. Too many people lead to sensory overload, and he feels like they’re all watching him which makes him a bit paranoid
  • Double vision is widespread in people with dementia, and I sometimes have to give my Grandpa extra time to process what he’s seeing. His double vision has also caused him to lose some of the enjoyment he once had for watching TV
  • Imagine getting a fright every time you see yourself in the mirror. Well, that’s my Grandpa’s reality. It even happens with windows and other reflective surfaces

Smell

  • My Grandpa once told me that he could tell when he’s hungry, but because he can’t smell his food properly, he has lost his appetite
  • A lot of people don’t know that your sense of smell affects your ability to taste, as well. Unfortunately, my Grandpa has stopped enjoying his food even more because he can hardly taste it. Everything is bland, and nothing is appetizing
  • He’s also very self-conscious, and has anxiety about not being able to smell properly, and worries that he might smell bad and doesn’t notice. He’s always been a people pleaser, so the thought of making others uncomfortable is incredibly distressing for him

Taste

  • Not being able to taste his food properly has turned quite dangerous for my Grandpa. One time we went out as a family for his birthday, and he ordered a prawn curry. None of us shared the same meal, and he couldn’t tell that the seafood had gone “off.” He got such bad food poisoning from it that he had to be hospitalized; not to mention the malnutrition that we now have to address
  • Another problem is that he over salts his food. He’s always struggled with high blood pressure, so this is a serious health hazard for him. A lady in the same nursing home has a similar issue. She’s diabetic but adds so much sugar in her tea just to taste it that she must be continuously monitored by the nursing staff

Touch

  • I first realized that something was wrong with my Grandpa’s sensation when I noticed the burns on his hands. It turns out, he can’t really tell the difference between hot and cold anymore, and he’d poured boiling water over his hands while making his tea!
  • Though my Grandpa is quite restrained, I’ve noticed that other people with dementia tend to become very “touchy-feely.” They seek different textures and sensations and can often become inappropriate when interacting with others – especially those who don’t like being touched

Hearing

  • While my Grandpa wears a hearing aid, he’s started to experience other hearing problems as well. He often misses words when people are talking, and they end up shouting at him to get their message across which he finds distressing
  • He flinches at loud sounds or when I speak to him unexpectedly. He’s even told me these sounds “hurt” his ears, “ring” in his head, and make him unable to think
  • My Grandpa often complains about the music at social events or in the shops. He says that the music seems to build up and get louder and louder to the point where he gets agitated, upset, and just wants to leave. This negatively impacts his ability to socialize with his friends and family

Hallucinations

dementia and hallucinations

Image courtesy of LiveBetterWith

Hallucinations are a scary part of dementia, and they tend to affect three of the senses in particular:

  • Visual hallucinations occur when your loved one perceives or “sees” something that isn’t there or in the real world
  • Olfactory hallucinations occur when your loved smells things that aren’t there or finds that things they once knew smell different
  • Auditory hallucinations occur when your loved one hears voices or sounds that aren’t there or real

A lot of people with dementia also experience hallucinations in the form of very vivid dreams to the point where they struggle to tell the difference between a dream and reality.

If you’d like to learn more about hallucinations, you can watch this video:

How You Can Help Your Loved One

Clearly, the experience that your loved one has with their dementia is not a pleasant one, and as a family member and caregiver, it’s up to you to do everything in your power to help them stay in touch with their senses as far as possible.

Here are some suggestions:

Sight

  • Give your loved one more time to process what they’re seeing before asking them to act on it. Make sure they’re wearing the correct glasses and that they’re clean.
  • Try and get rid of shadows in their environment and ensure that there’s bright, even lighting instead. This can be helped by keeping the color of walls and carpets plain so that important objects can be given contrasting colors to make them stand out.
  • Consider placing colored overlays over your loved one’s reading material to help them see better (Amazon.com has a variety of great products to choose from). If this still doesn’t work, then you can give them audiobooks.
  • Inform people that your loved one has visual difficulties and encourage them to do the same.

Smell

  • Introduce your loved one to smelling activities to help promote their sense of smell. You could bake a cake and have them close their eyes and smell each ingredient. Then they can try and guess what the ingredient is.
  • Some smells can be intense and overpowering. Monitor your loved one for signs of confusion and distress and get rid of the odors that cause these reactions. At the same time, take note of smells that your loved one enjoys and encourage discussion about them so that you can stimulate their sense of smell.
  • Inform people that your loved one has difficulty smelling and encourage them to do the same.

Taste

  • Remember that changes in your loved one’s ability to taste may affect their appetite and eating habits. Try and be patient with them and encourage their eating. You can even consult with a dietician to see if there are perhaps food alternatives that your loved one will be able to taste better and enjoy.
  • Take note of what foods your loved one still enjoys and try and include those in their daily diet as much as possible to encourage them to eat.
  • Inform people that your loved one has difficulty tasting and encourage them to do the same.

Touch

  • If your loved one struggles to tell the difference between temperatures, help them understand what is hot and what is cold, and tell them what temperature an object is so that they know what to expect when they use it. This will also prevent accidents and injury from happening.
  • Fit special taps and faucets onto your loved one’s showers, baths, and sinks so that the temperature is regulated, and no accidents happen when you aren’t there to assist them.
  • Inform people that your loved one has difficulty sensing touch and encourage them to do the same.

Hearing

  • Give your loved one time to hear and process what you’re saying to them, and use reflective listening by repeating what you say to help them understand you better.
  • If your loved one has been to a social event with lots of noise and stimulation, they may need some time to rest and recover once they get back home. Try and choose quiet places for social events or family meals to prevent tiring them out.
  • On that point, do everything in your power to reduce sensory overload and sudden, unexpected noises as far as possible, as this might cause your loved one to become distressed and confused.
  • If you can see that your loved one is getting overwhelmed or distressed in a noisy environment or when trying to hear, take them for a short walk to a quiet space to calm them down and give them some time to recover.
  • Inform people that your loved one has hearing difficulties and encourage them to do the same.

Hallucinations

  • If you see that your loved one is having a hallucination, try and explain to them what is happening, but DON’T try and convince them that they’re mistaken or what they’re experiencing isn’t real. This is very distressing for them and will affect you emotionally as well.
  • Always offer your loved one reassurance when they are having a hallucination and give some distraction techniques a try. Maybe draw them into a favorite TV show or offer to go out on a walk.
  • Check your loved one’s environment and eliminate shadows and anything else you believe might be distressing them.
  • Always check your loved one’s medications for potential hallucinogenic side-effects, as well as their general health for signs of delirium or infection.
together dementia support

Image courtesy of The University of Manchester

Remember, you’re never truly alone when caring for your loved one with dementia, and you can always find support if you need it. Dementia is one of the most distressing illnesses that a person can have, so you must try your best to help your loved one where possible.

Losing even one of your five senses is something that would throw anyone off and make them perceive their world differently. Imagine that happening to you while you’re losing your memory and other cognitive abilities.

Be patient with your loved one, and never waver in the support that you give them. They’ll be grateful for it, and you’ll be proud knowing that you’ve made a difference to their reality and how they perceive the world around them.

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