Transforming buildings to awaken the senses

Exploring the growing trend for sensory rooms in hospitals, health centres and mental health facilities

Sensory rooms are commonly used as a distraction in children’s units and in mental health facilities

In this article we explore the impact of sensory rooms in hospitals, health centres and mental health facilities

Sensory rooms have been common in the education sector for several decades, but as more emphasis is placed on creating healing patient environments, they have also become increasingly central to modern healthcare design.

David Payne, product manager at SensoryPlus, has spent many years working with health and social care providers and has seen dedicated sensory rooms grow in popularity.

“In the healthcare market sensory equipment is used in many ways. Spaces are often created as a distraction in children’s A&E departments, in reception areas, and of course in more-secure settings such as mental health units where they can be used for de-escalation or to create an environment in which complementary therapies can take place and people can learn to relax and de-stress.

When one or more of our senses are impaired, parts of the world are less accessible and understanding is diminished

“In dementia and senior care environments sensory rooms can be used to give those who like to wander something stimulating to sit and watch. Once they are calmer there is more potential to help and support them. Sensory equipment can also be used to help people to communicate more effectively.

“In addition, they are widely used in day centres for adults and children with learning disabilities and in some facilities aimed at people with autism, for example.”

Recent examples of developments in hospitals in England include the creation of four sensory spaces at Oakview Hospital in Attleborough, Norfolk.

Cognitive therapy

The hospital has an adult unit providing 24 beds and treats men and women aged from 18-64 with learning disabilities and mental health-related illnesses such as depression.

Payne said: “Sensory stimulation is vital to these patients, many of whom are referred to St Luke's with behavioural problems, often caused or amplified by lack of appropriate mental stimulation. Stimulants such as colour, audio and/or visual, even tactile, experiences can reach them in a way that a cognitive therapist sitting at a table cannot.”

Patients benefit from four different rooms including a Sound Studio, which has a high-specification sound system that boasts disco lighting and separate mood lights; and a Light Studio with vibrating soundboard floors and wall-inset bubble panels.

SensoryPlus has designed four new sensory rooms at St Luke\'s Hospital in Attleborough

A spokesman at the hospital said of the facilities: “The sound studio, in particular, really appeals to patients in the 20s to mid-30s age group who can enjoy loud music and a more actively-stimulating environment. However, the mood is interchangeable with a more-calming environment by simply changing the lighting and putting on a soothing CD.

“People already in a relaxed state of mind use the occupational therapy block, benefiting from the soft textured walls with wavy edges to give it that nautical effect, and cushioned floors to create a soft and comforting environment. There is also an enclosed area with a large comfortable bead bed, which produces a similar effect to a waterbed, allowing occupants to practice their relaxation techniques."

Rest and relaxation

On the Light Studio, he added: “This is particularly effective as we have the ability to change the room into a private cinema with lights down the side, to give it that cinema feel and, for me, that alone sets it apart from any other sensory environments I've seen. Through the use of a projector and a wall featuring four cream coloured central panels, patients can watch DVD's as a treat, allowing valuable visual and audio stimulation to be integrated into a positive behaviour reinforcement programme."

Payne added: “When one or more of our senses are impaired, parts of the world are less accessible and understanding is diminished.

“Sensory rooms meet a wide range of needs, from encouraging positive actions for those with sensory impairment to promoting rest and relaxation for the agitated or stressed.”

Sensory rooms meet a wide range of needs, from encouraging positive actions for those with sensory impairment to promoting rest and relaxation for the agitated or stressed

When planning a new sensory space, he warns there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “These are tools, not magic tricks,” he adds. “How staff interact with residents or service users is still the most important thing, but equipment can be a starting block to aid this work.

“It is important to take into consideration who will be using the facility and to look carefully at the building and infrastructure to fully understand how it is going to be used. Will the patients be supervised, and what is the experience and competency of the staff? There are lots of prerequisites to creating a good sensory environment.”

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