The ABC’s of Sensory Preferences

Each of us has our own unique fingerprint as well as our own unique sensory preferences.  With our fingerprint, we can be universally identified often for less than positive reasons.  With our unique sensory preferences we can be universally pleased with an experience or universally displeased.  The range of response is based on our ability to communicate due to illness, dementia.  Regardless of health, our sensory preferences remain. If it is an unpleasant sensory stimulant, we will “communicate” our distaste by some type of negative behavior.  

Those closest to us are more likely to know what sensory stimulant triggers our behavior.  Yet even long-time spouses cannot pinpoint a loved one’s sensory preferences beyond a favorite dessert or color.  Feathering Your Nest, A Blueprint for Creating Comfort is a workbook I have written to build relationships through the sharing of sensory preferences.  When health is challenged, true relationship-centered care requires a foundational understanding of the individual’s sensory preferences. 

Over the next weeks I will be writing my personal primer for sensory preferences.  Using my own sensory memories and preferences I will illustrate the value of knowing an individual’s sensory preferences.





A is for apple. 

When I slice and core an apple my memory flashes back to late summer or early fall evenings in the second floor bedroom of our home in MD. The room was surrounded by windows open to the evening breeze.  I called it our “tree-house”.  There were two apple trees near our windows whose over ripe fruit covered the ground.  The apple scent was sweet and heady on the light breeze.  There was a sense of satisfaction . . . long summer nights were mostly passed.  On these aromatic nights, the white tail deer would often wake me as they gathered under the apple trees to munch the fallen fruit.  I can still hear the sound of their chomping and their hoofs scuffing the ground.  I can hear the quick forceful snuff of air from their noses as they sensed danger.  Through these senses, I became part of the night world, unbidden but magical.  There was a sense of calm that descended even if a nightmare had just past. 

All this from the slicing of an apple?  Absolutely!  Smell is my primary sense, hearing a close second.  The slicing of an apple brings back a rush of other senses, all positive for me.

That same apple smell could bring a totally negative sensory memory to another individual.  Suppose the smell of apples brings back the memory of a job at a farm picking, sorting, smashing, juicing apples in the fall.  The work was hot, the bees vicious, the pay low.  The smell of sliced apples might bring back a feeling of fatigue, discouragement, a virtual shudder of reminiscence. 

For me, apple slicing would be a positive daily activity that produces pleasant memories, reduced anxiety and increased cooperation. For another individual, the slicing of apples might be repugnant, causing withdrawal and maybe even aggression.

What sensory memories are triggered today in your world?

Consider this:  If we knew the sensory preferences of the individuals in our life, how much more effective would our care be?

Author: Cate
Passionate about dementia care and quality of life throughout the last days of life----sums up Cate McCarty, Dr. Cate, Dementia Coach. With close to forty years of long-term care experience in nursing and recreation, a Master's in Thanatology and a PhD in Aging Studies, Dr. Cate seizes every opportunity to translate research into quality of life for individuals with dementia and all of us who have the honor to "rub elbows" with them.

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