Can sensory 'circuits' benefit older adults?

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

When you think of 'sensory integration' or even 'sensory circuits' you may think about young children playing on big pieces of equipment, such as a swing. The types of diagnoses that may come to mind are autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), learning disability and maybe even attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But if I said that a 90-year-old woman could benefit from sensory circuits I am sure, like me, you would be pretty sceptical.

Following my sensory training earlier this year, I felt inspired to introduce this into my interventions. I have seen sensory circuits done before, primarily with diagnoses such as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder and Autism. As I started researching sensory and the elderly, unsurprisingly there is limited evidence. Despite this, I thought it was worth a try, because of the denoted needs of this population. So we began - and below is roughly what the session entails and my personal experience and somewhat reflection of this intervention.

Session outline

The session is set up in a large gym area with 4 main ‘stations’ prepared. These stations encompass an organising activity, 2 alerting activities and one calming activity. So far this is feeling very similar to all of the other sensory circuits you may have seen. The difference is the grading and adaptation of the activities.

For example - when using the trampet for vestibular input, patients will sit down on a comfortable chair, bounce their legs and be encouraged to rock back and forward. This may be done by using a tool to make them rock back and forth, or getting them to move in a way which encourages head movement. This still provides that vestibular input and can be calming for patients.

Another example is that when we play hoopla (organising activity), patients are encouraged to utilise a step to go up and down, so they still get the vestibular input.

In terms of an alerting activity, it is good to use something familiar, so we use proprioception in the form of sweeping. A good example is to bounce and catch big gym balls to encourage that proprioception and we often encourage a simple word recall activity to go alongside this. This activity is another familiar one that elderly clients appear to understand and connect with. In some activities we will also use the mirror, to encourage development of self-concept.

Calming activities can be anything from giving the patient a gentle hand massage to listening to slow music and encouraging them to focus on the different instruments.

In my experience, I find that having this structured sensory input has improved my patients' well-being and arousal levels. In particular, I am finding a lot of patients who suffer from dementia and appear under-alert for the majority of the day benefit from this type of activation, which makes them more alert and able to communicate which impacts on their occupational performance. Another great benefit of activation is that patients may be more able to feed themselves and adjust their posture, to be open and ready for the eating process.


This learning has enabled me to experiment with the use of sensory approaches within the client group you work. Providing interventions that attempt to integrate the sensory systems will influence their functional ability. It is an important aspect that we do not overlook, due to age or perceptions of mobility. Hopefully this may inspire you, if you are dabbling with sensory approaches and not sure how to start!

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