To Stay Present, Tap Into Your Senses
Dementia care is a situation with a lot of hurrying, a lot of waiting, and a lot of
overloaded senses. It's easy to carry around all of that anticipation, all of the fear and
worry, and not realize that it builds up in our bodies like silt at the mouth of a river. The
body cannot tell the difference between stress that is emotional, financial, or life-
threatening, so our adrenaline surges, our pulse raises, and our senses can be
heightened over any stressor.
Over time, a near-constant state of alert can cause hypervigilance, poor sleep, and adrenal fatigue. It's vital to learn to calm our bodies, whether through planned moments of peace or to de-escalate situations where we are already overwhelmed – and there won't necessarily be time to sit down with a book or a bath!
Convincing our bodies that we are safe begins just by recognizing opportunities to do
so: moments when our loved one is resting or distracted, moments when we are alone
or have support, moments when we are addressing our own basic needs. These are
opportunities and can be cultivated to not only catch our breath but also recover a little
bit of peace for the future. In extreme cases, I've heard of caregivers taking extra trips to
the bathroom or lingering there a few extra minutes – if that's all the time you get to
yourself, make the most of it!
Once you identify a moment where you know no one is in immediate danger, the next step is to reduce your physical and mental excitement. Anything that relaxes you out of a state of excitement can be relaxing but the most efficient ways simply focus on your physical senses. The simplicity is important! These should be interventions you can attempt in as little as 30 seconds, with little to no preparation.
Most of us know the five basic senses, so here are some quick ways to ground yourself by focusing on a single sense at a time:
Sight – sunlight, bright colors, scenic landscapes.
Sound – music, sounds of nature, ASMR, or the sizzle of a favorite dish.
Scent – fresh flowers, essential oils – for me, it's a favorite tea!
Touch – dry brushes, the sensation of water or wind, a pet.
Taste – lemon water, a special treat, or anything that you slow down and savor!
Recognizing other senses of the body may also be effective:
Spatial orientation – lay down in a room where you usually sit, lay sideways or
diagonal in bed.
Breath – quick breaths stimulate our bodies, long and slow breathes help them
Time – count up or down until you lose focus on other thoughts (if simple
counting isn't enough, try counting by multiples: 0, 7, 14, 21…).
Temperature – generally, we think of warmth as soothing, but this can also
include finding a refreshing way to cool off when we're overheated.
You may recognize some of these senses as being stimulated during yoga!
Finally, if you are able, some senses can be muted for relaxation:
Sight – how dark can you make your bedroom?
Sound – invest in noise-canceling headphones or curl up into several layers of
Touch – can you spread out every limb and every finger and toe so that no part
of your body is touching any other part? Alternately, can you tense up every
muscle in your body for 10 seconds and then release?
Breath – hold your breath for just a second longer than is comfortable and you
may notice your body relax; your pulse will race for a moment, but the tension
Time – sit in a place with no phones, clocks, or other devices and do absolutely
nothing – not even sleep or meditate – for what feels to you like five minutes.
How close can you get?
Results will vary because we each experience our bodies and our stress differently. If
you find a method doesn’t work or becomes less effective, don't be afraid to change
things up. The only “right” or “wrong” is what soothes and what doesn’t.
And when you've found something that soothes you, you may want to try sharing it with
your loved one – many of these techniques can be just as effective for people living with
G.J. Hodson is a community educator and researcher based in North Texas. In 2017,
G.J. became the first former participant of Caregivers of Dementia Wellness Retreats to
serve as a volunteer, and since 2020 has presented at our Houston retreats. To learn more about G.J.'s work and upcoming presentations, click here.