A care home in Birmingham has built a “sensory street” – complete with tea room, sweet shop and post office – to help stimulate its residents. It is particularly helpful to those living with dementia, but how does it work?
When you first arrive at Robert Harvey House, the first thing you hear is music – songs from the 1950s onwards playing over the sound system throughout the home. And then you take a walk outside the back door.
A goat jumps up and greets you hoping for some scraps of vegetables, a parrot squawks a loud “hello” and then you see a full replica High Street laid out before you. There’s a sweet shop full of old-fashioned jars of liquorice allsorts, a petrol pump beside the post office and union jack bunting across the tea shop.
“It just got bigger and bigger and it was like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s not just have shop fronts but spaces people could actually use, that families could use,'” says Anthea Reid, the care home’s manager.
Next to the cages housing the parrots there are guinea pigs, ducks and those hungry goats – all aimed at stimulating residents’ senses.
The inspiration came when the team saw a similar set-up in the Netherlands.
“I think it’s excellent, it gives them a talking point,” says Viv Semmens, whose 90-year-old mum Audrey has lived there for two years.
Audrey is living with dementia, like more than half of the home’s residents.
“She can’t remember the last time she saw a butcher’s shop,” Viv explains. “So just thinking about those things is really positive – how she felt when she was younger, the places she visited when she was younger.”
Providing stimulating environments and opportunities for social interaction is very important in elderly care, says Dr Sarah Smith, senior dementia researcher at Leeds Beckett University. She says people with dementia can struggle to access memories, but it does not mean they have been lost, and sensory stimulation can help residents access them.
“The memories people retrieve when these types of cues are provided are typically from periods around early adulthood, which are considered to be self-defining,” Dr Smith explains, “so reminiscing about these memories can reinforce sense of self and promote well-being.”
After looking around more than a dozen care homes, Viv Semmens says she has “absolute confidence” that her mother is in the best possible place. “She takes part when she’s asked to and really does seem to get something out of it,” she says.
Around half the residents at the home are privately funded and half by the NHS or local authority. It is run by a charity called Broadening Choices for Older People, which also does fundraising to provide facilities.
Because the health of the majority of the home’s residents with advanced dementia will slowly decline, the people running it say the priority is to give them the best possible standard of life.
“Even if we haven’t got a glorious day, we’ll wrap them up in a blanket, take them into the tea room, put the heating on, and just try to make the day special,” Anthea explains.
Residents with advanced dementia will not necessarily recall exactly what’s happening, says Caroline Cooban, the charity’s chief executive, “but if, in just that moment, there’s a connection made, a smile, a laugh, then that’s the most important thing.”
The home also cares for people with mental health problems.
Chris Garrett and his wife Jane have been together for 22 years, and were both enjoying retirement when she had a nervous breakdown, and was sectioned. Jane spent four years in various hospitals and mental health institutions – she cannot remember any of it and some days she didn’t even recognise Chris.
But in January it was decided she could move out, and Chris wanted to try Robert Harvey House.
“Since she’s been in here, the consultant said she thought it was a miracle the way Jane has recovered. Because she recognises people, she socialises, and I think a lot of that is due to this environment,” he says.
Jane and Chris have been able to have special meals for birthdays and Valentine’s Day in the tea rooms, and every day Jane spends a bit of time talking to the parrots out of her bedroom window.
“As soon as I came here with the animals and all the care and devotion and the love, it got me better,” she says.
Dr Smith says the importance of psychological needs has been recognised in recent years, with many care homes adopting practices such as reminiscence activities and sensory experiences. For her, there is “an increasing body of evidence to show that there is a lot that people can do to live well with dementia,” she says. “Much of this has been achieved by putting people living with dementia at the centre of this conversation.
“That being said, some care homes still face challenges in being able to deliver this level of care for a variety of reasons such as resources, staff skills and knowledge.”
Meanwhile, Anthea gets emotional when we ask her what she likes about working in the home.
“It’s family, everyone who’s here, domestics, carers, caterers, everybody, it’s in here,” she says, patting her heart.