Sensory Spa at Sunshine Retirement Living's Caleo Bay Assisted Living & Memory Care in La Quinta, CA.
Sensory Spa at Sunshine Retirement Living’s Caleo Bay Assisted Living & Memory Care in La Quinta, CA. (Image courtesy of Sunshine Retirement Living)

When Sunshine Retirement Living officials saw a significant drop in the use of antipsychotics in its memory care residents after piloting a “sensory spa” in one community, its mission became clear. The company expanded use of the spas throughout its portfolio.

The sensory spas provide a variety of stimuli that work together to improve cognitive, behavioral and communication issues by engaging all five senses. The spas include soothing sound machines to calm anxiety, mood-enhancing variable lighting, and virtual reality headsets offering a variety of virtual experiences to help uncover memories and improve socialization.

Sunshine Regional Vice President of Operations Kena Phillips told McKnight’s Senior Living that she adapted the concept from research regarding the use of sensory rooms for people with autism. The idea grew out of the knowledge that people living with dementia become more introspective, necessitating efforts to work with all five senses “to bring them joy, peace and comfort.”

Drop in antipsychotic use

In a 60-day pilot program at Sunshine’s Copper Canyon assisted living and memory care community in Tucson, AZ, antipsychotic use among residents dropped significantly, including up to 70% of medications administered on an as-needed basis.

“Recent medical research has found that sensory stimulation in sensory spa settings can decrease non-pharmacological interventions and help manage responsive behaviors among residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s,” said Sunshine Retirement Living CEO Luis Serrano, adding that the positive outcomes from the pilot program were better than anticipated. 

As a result, Sunshine installed sensory spas at all of its 23 memory care communities in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. The spas are now part of the company’s life enrichment programs and complement its pet therapy, music therapy, life skills stations and activities, and other programming.

Phillips said that the rooms are open for use by individual residents and through structured activity programming and wellness activities. Community health services staff and the life enrichment director now partner to use the sensory spas first before relying on a medication to address resident behavior issues. 

The company said that memory care residents have unique needs based on the progression of disease. Offering a variety of activities can prevent feelings of boredom and isolation that can lead to depression, frustration, anxiety and an increased use of medications. 

“As dementia progresses, it can be very confusing and stressful for the person living with it,” Sunshine Retirement Living Director of Clinical Services Mindy Podraza told McKnight’s Senior Living. “Sunshine Retirement Living’s sensory spas provide a quiet environment where our residents can focus on pleasant sensory sensations that can help refocus that energy and decrease challenging behaviors.” 

Positive effect

The dedicated sensory spa rooms offer various seating options, including rocking chairs to encourage movement; aromatherapy and essential oils; large wall murals: and multi-tactile materials and objects, including soft, heated and weighted blankets. Large wall monitors and TVs show various scenes to calm and promote past memories and scenarios such as travel or meditation.

Phillips said that the spas promote better communication between residents and caregivers, and families sometimes join their loved ones in the experiences. Assisted living and independent living residents of communities that have sensory spas are invited to use them as well.

As a team-building exercise, staff members in communities that have sensory spas were given five-minute gift certificates to “take a break.”

“Everyone wants to work in the spa,” Phillips said. “It’s so peaceful and calming. It smells good. It feels good.”

Phillips said she has spoken with other communities interested in the concept to provide their experience and tips on implementation.