Providers Get New Tool to Care for ‘Sense-Sensitive’ Residents

Patrick Connole

Some issues in health care seem so basic that they may be overlooked at times. One such area for long term care providers that could be missing from their checklist is how well residents can use each of their five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight.

If these five are not accounted for then there could be follow-on ill effects for quality of life, according to a group of researchers at the University of Ottawa Life Research Institute and their partner Sodexo. The group has produced a new audit tool and real-world solutions to help long term care providers create “sense-sensitive” environments for seniors.

In addition, the researchers published what they call the first comprehensive study of how the five senses impact quality of life for those living in long term care communities: “How and Why the Five Senses Matter for Quality of Life: A Guide for Long-Term Care Communities.”

The point of this awareness of the senses, and how residents can tap into their abilities in these five realms, is to improve patient-centered care. Because as the study demonstrates through examples, seniors with low vision may have difficulty distinguishing between similar colors, so long term care communities might use high-contrast colors to help them see different items and areas.

Or, a diminished sense of smell can impact the ability to taste, which can be partially aided by creating an open kitchen area that helps residents better smell food and in turn stimulate appetite.

Another example is if a resident has a hearing impairment, which can of course make participating in conversations difficult. To counter, the center may work to minimize background noise from heating and cooling systems and create a quiet space for seniors to hear others. It is important to understand how the senses work in relation to life in a facility.

Thomas Jelly, vice president of the Sodexo Institute for Quality of Life, tells ProviderNation that it is no great mystery that, as we age, our senses can slip in ways large and small. But what needs to be explored further is how important this loss is to the overall quality of a person’s life, especially in the long term care setting.

“We know that our senses are a window that we have to the objective world around us. And, the senses are the vehicle in which we interpret the real world,” he says. “This is how we experience feelings of well-being, of quality of life, of purpose and meaning. The senses are fundamental to understanding the world around us.”

The task is to respond to the needs of the resident and make these impairments less of an impediment to enjoying life.

In order to advance their work on the senses, Sodexo and the Ottawa researchers focused on the basics of what providers can do to help. Even though health care is overwhelmed these days with data and complexities of care management, oftentimes the most fundamental assessment of new arrivals’ sensory capacity is not being undertaken on admission.

Jelly says while there is no standard screening process for sense-sensitivity, the new audit that his group created provides a guide on how the five senses affect the quality of life. “If there is a gap, we can help fill it and at same time help a facility’s performance. Everyone should be on same page,” he says.

The goal is to have an action plan in place on a resident’s sensory conditions for all stakeholders and families to recognize and track.

An example Jelly gives is that if a resident has an issue with sight, the way a window directs the light may blind someone walking toward it, which could limit that person from using a hallway or walking altogether.

“Another example is an eating area in a residential facility. Very often older people have a decreased sense of taste and smell, and quite often they find food not all that appetizing,” he says. “But what if there is not adequate lighting? That may not seem related, but food colors come out in proper light, and the texture comes and it goes some way to help mitigate that loss of a sense of smell and taste.”

The senses, he explains, all affect each other and often in ways we don’t think.

Senses are vital to the overall care plan, and the more research is done the more apparent taking steps to remedy the problems is not beyond the reach of the provider community.

Download the Sodexo study at

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