Eliminating Stimuli Overload for Persons with Dementia

Persons with Dementia may become overwhelmed when faced with too many visual and auditory stimuli. Remember, the problem is not that they don’t sense what’s going on around them; the problem is with how the brain processes and translates what is being seen and heard. A healthy brain applies value to the stimuli input it receives and then determines where it should focus.

Your brain filters noise and movement it deems unnecessary, allowing you to focus on what is most important at that particular time. For most people, multitasking capabilities mean they can process about five or six items at a time. This allows you to talk on the phone while ignoring the television and your spouse talking to a neighbor at the front door all while continuing to make dinner and correct a child who is trying to feed the dog ice cream.

Remember for a person with dementia, the brain slowly loses this filtering system. Too much environmental stimulation (i.e., noise, light, movement, and other things we may not even recognize because of our healthy brain’s ability to filter the extras) can turn a once-enjoyed activity into a frightening experience for someone with dementia.

Take the process of dining, for example. Too many distractions – music, television, loud talking, movement by others, multiple pieces of glassware and silverware, table decorations, bottles of condiments, even the color of the plate can be overwhelming to a person with Alzheimer’s. Even if your mom always loved going out to dinner, her dementia may advance to a point where she can’t go a restaurant anymore because of the overwhelming noise and activity. She may become frightened, agitated, or aggressive instead.

Here are some ideas to help someone deal with information overload

  • If your loved one is living in a dementia facility, visit during mealtimes and observe if the staff is taking steps to reduce stimuli during meals. For example, no television or music, but quiet. If your loved one is living at home, keep plates simple and place settings to a bare minimum. Again, turn off the television or radio. If others are at the table, keep the conversations quiet and calm. Her brain needs all its ability to focus on eating.
  • Minimize distractions in rooms by keeping clutter to a minimum and noises muted. If trying to communicate with a person who has dementia, turn off the television and radio, and move away from others. (More communication techniques can be found in Chapter 8 of Untangling Alzheimer’s)

When you better understand the many changes taking place in the environment of person with dementia because of damage to her brain, you will be able to appreciate how easy it is for that individual to become paranoid, frustrated and angry. Imagine how frightened you would feel if you were being startled and scared by people throughout the day who seemingly jump out at you. For these reasons and all we know about the dementia process, it is incumbent on us to do everything possible to make the world of the person we love easier to navigate and understand.

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