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The Effects of Snoezelen (Multi-sensory Behavior Therapy) and Psychiatric Care on
Agitation, Apathy, and Activities of Daily Living in Dementia Patients on a Short Term
Geriatric Psychiatric Inpatient Unit.
Jason A. Staal, Psy.D.
Amanda Sacks, Ph.D.
Robert Matheis, Ph.D.
Tina Calia, M.A.
Henry Hanif, OTR/L.
Lesley Collier, MSC., Dip COT SROT.
Eugene S. Kofman B.A.
Previous presentation: A poster of this paper was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Prevention of Dementia: Early diagnosis and intervention. July 18-21, 2005, Washington, D.C. Location of work and address for reprints: Jason A. Staal, Psy.D. Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, University Hospital for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry Division of psychology. Beth Israel Medical Center First Avenue at 16th Street, New York, New York 10003, Office location: 6K, e-mail: Jstaal@chpnet.org.
A randomized, controlled, single-blinded, between group study of 24 participants with moderate
to severe dementia was conducted on a geriatric psychiatric unit. All participants received
pharmacological therapy, occupational therapy, structured hospital environment, and were
randomized to receive multi sensory behavior therapy (MSBT) or a structured activity session.
Greater independence in activities of daily living (ADLs) was observed for the group treated
with MSBT and standard psychiatric inpatient care on the Katz Index of Activities of Daily
Living (KI-ADL; P=0.05) than standard psychiatric inpatient care alone. The combination
treatment of MSBT and standard psychiatric care also reduced agitation and apathy greater than
standard psychiatric inpatient care alone as measured with the Pittsburgh Agitation Scale and the
Scale for the Assessment of Negative Symptoms in Alzheimer’s Disease (P=0.05). Multiple
regression analysis predicted that within the multi-sensory group, activities of daily living (KI-
ADL) increase as apathy and agitation reduced (R2
= 0.42; p
= 0.03). These data suggest that
utilizing MSBT with standard psychiatric inpatient care may reduce apathy and agitation and
additionally improve activities of daily living in hospitalized people with moderate to severe
Keywords: Snoezelen, multi-sensory therapy, agitation therapy, dementia, behavior therapy,
The present study is the first to assess whether a combined treatment comprised of
standard psychiatric inpatient care and a non-pharmacological intervention, multi-sensory
behavior therapy (MSBT), reduces agitation and apathy and improves ADLs in people with
dementia on an acute care psychiatric hospital unit compared to standard psychiatric inpatient
Psychiatric inpatient care for the behavioral, psychological symptoms of disease (BPSD)
consists of atypical antipsychotics for the reduction of agitation and psychosis, mood-stabilizers,
antidepressants, a structured hospital environment, and occupational therapy . Older people
are often sensitive to adverse effects such as sedation, orthostatic hypotension, and
extrapyamidal effects that can limit the use of medication and compromise efficacy .
Sensory stimulation was first introduced in America the 1960’s as an intervention to
improve well-being in institutionalized people with dementia . Sensory stimulation developed
in The Netherlands under the term Snoezelen.
Three previous studies suggest Snoezelen reduces BPSD [7-9]. To differentiate the study
from its a-theoretical predecessors (Multi Sensory Environmental Therapy (MSET) and Dutch
Snoezelen), a new term labeled multi-sensory behavior therapy (MSBT) was developed to
describe the integration of behaviorism and Dutch Snoezelen . The theoretical framework of
MSBT is based on the operant paradigm of automatic reinforcement [11-12] and the
physiological model of the relaxation response . Staal has developed a method of sensory
assessment to match the preferences of the dementia patient with stimuli that target the visual,
auditory, olfactory, and tactile systems and in turn individualizes the intervention to the
We predicted that participants randomized to combined psychiatric care and MSBT
would have a greater reduction in agitation and apathy and improvement in ADLs compared to
those who received standard psychiatric care and attention controlled structured activity group.
Furthermore, we hypothesized that the use of a combination treatment to treat BPSD would be
associated with greater improvement in ADLs. Baseline and post-baseline assessment outcomes
included measurement of level of agitation, apathy, and ADLs.
Recruitment of Participants
The present study recruited 24 geriatric inpatients with the admitting diagnosis dementia
with behavioral disturbances on an acute care geriatric psychiatry unit. Prior to the
administration of baseline assessment measures, all study participants were randomly assigned to
either the MSBT experimental group (n =12) or a standard inpatient psychiatric care control
group (n =12). Informed written consent and a HIPAA form (Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act of 1996) was obtained from all participants and legal guardians and the study
was approved by the Institutional Review Board. The study sample was comprised of 8 males
and 16 females (X2 = 1.67, p
= 0.44). There were statistically significant differences in mean age
between the treatment and control groups: The MSBT group (M = 80.33, SD =1.59) was
significantly older than the control group (M = 72.00, SD = 0.84). There were no differences in
Global Deterioration Scale (GDS) between the MSBT and control groups. Moderate differences
in Mini Mental Status scores were observed where the MSBT group scored slightly higher
(M= 19.17, SD = 1.47) than the control group (M = 11.83, SD = 2.77; p
= 0.08); both groups,
however, were within the critical range. Cognitive change was not an endpoint of this study and
this cognitive screening instrument was a mere gate keeper measurement to insure that
participants had a minimum cognitive status to understand directions and benefit from the
intervention. Differences in group overall health scores, as measured by the Multi-level
Assessment Instrument (MAI), were statistically significant between groups, with the MSBT
group scoring a mean of 4.17 and the control group scoring a mean of 2.83.
A mixed design evaluated the effectiveness of MSBT on activities of daily living. The between
groups variable was the type of intervention (MSBT vs. structured activity) and the repeated
within group variable was measures of improvement in ADLs over time. Medication dosage was
individually adjusted by psychiatrists blind to the participant’s group.
Baseline levels of agitation and apathy were measured. Participants were randomized to the
comparison control group one to one attention using therapeutic recreation activities such as play
dough or to the experimental group, one to one individualized sensory stimulation. A six session
protocol, 25 to 30 minutes per session, was conducted post MSBT assessment. Dressing was
measured by research assistants post both groups using a sweater. Nurses were blind to the
study’s aims rated overall patient ADL post experimental and control groups on the inpatient
unit. Research assistants measured apathy and agitation post sessions for both groups.
[Insert Table 1 here]
The Global Deterioration Scale (GDS) determined stage of illness. The interrater
concordance for the GDS is .95 for a zero or one point difference and a concordance of .70 for
The Pittsburgh Agitation Scale (PAS) assessed agitation. Inter-rater reliability for all
four domains assessed with kappa exceed .80 .
From the Multi-level Assessment Instrument, one subscale (Physical Health) as a
covariate in this study. The test-retest reliability of the physical health domain was 0.95 and the
The Scale for the Assessment of Negative Symptoms in Alzheimer’s Disease (SANS-
AD) measured negative symptoms in patients with dementia. Inter-rater reliability ranged from
0.70 for affective flattening to 0.88 for avolition-apathy .
The Katz Index of Activities of Daily Living (KI-ADL) assessed bathing, dressing,
toileting, transfer, continence, and feeding. Inter-rater reliability assessed with a kappa
The Refined Activities of Daily Living Assessment Scale (RADL) assess ADLs.
Agreement on nurses’ ratings using Cronbach’s alpha ranged from 0.89 to 0.98 and correlations
with existing established ADL scales were 0.60 with the Physical Self-Maintenance Scale and
0.64 with the Performance Test of Activities of Daily Living suggesting moderate validity .
The Beck Dressing Performance Scale BDP measures dressing ability. The content validity and
inter-rater reliability for this instrument calculated by kappa coefficients was established to be
The Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE) is an instrument for screening gross cognitive
functioning, with interrater reliability at 0.88 and test-retest reliability of 0.89 .
In order to determine the effects of MSBT, a 2 (group) x 6 (time) repeated measures
analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) examined the efficacy of MSBT on apathy and agitation and
ADLs while covarying out physical health and age. A hierarchical multiple regression was used
to determine if measures on agitation and apathy were predictive of improvement in ADLs.
The MSBT group improved significantly in levels of agitation as compared to the control
(6, 120) = 3.56, p
= 0.003). The MSBT group significantly improved in level of apathy
as compared to the control group (F
(1, 20) = 4.47, p
= 0.04). Repeated measure analysis
revealed a significant interaction; only participants in the MSBT treatment group experienced
improvement in apathy from baseline to session six (F
(6, 120) = 3.15, p
= 0.01). One-way
univariate analyses of variance (ANOVA) were conducted to ensure group equivalence at
baseline on all ADL measures. The results indicated no significant group differences in KI-ADL
(1, 23) = 1.00, p
= 0.33), RADL scores (F
(1, 23) = 2.53, p
= 0.13), or BDP scores
(1, 23) = 1.17, p
= 0.29). A 2 (group) x 7 (time) repeated measures factorial ANCOVA was
employed with time and group as primary factors along with age and general health status as
covariates. The results revealed the MSBT treatment group to have significantly improved levels
of independence in ADLs on the KI-ADL than members of the control group (F
(1, 20) = 4.72, p
= 0.04). Contrary to our hypothesis, neither group demonstrated significant change in ADL
status as measured by the RADL, or on the BDP when dressing was assessed post group
[Insert table 2 here]
[Insert Table 3 here]
The results of the multiple regression analysis revealed that KI-ADL performance was
predicted significantly from the proposed model which included apathy and agitation scores as
well as health status and age as covariates (R
= 0.65, R2
= 0.42; F
(4, 19) = 3.40, p
= 0.03). The
RADL was predicted significantly only by agitation scores (R
= 0.68, R2
= 0.46; F
(4, 19) = 4.00,
0.02), and the model did not predict BDP scores beyond chance expectations (R
= 0.31; F
(4, 19) = 2.16, p
Within the experimental group (MSBT), nine of the twelve participants were on atypical
antipsychotic medications. A one-way, post hoc, between groups ANOVA was run for each
measure to compare those participants on antipsychotic medications that received MSBT and
those not on antipsychotic medications that received MSBT. The findings were not significant
for any of the measures; however, the trend for agitation was in the hypothesized direction
(1, 12) = 2.80, p
= .133). The nine participants who received MSBT and atypical
antipsychotic medications did have better results than the three subjects who received MSBT and
were not on atypical antipsychotic medications.
[Insert table 4 here]
The results indicated that over the course of 6 sessions of intervention, both the MSBT
group and control group had reduced agitation. However, the MSBT group demonstrated higher
decreases in agitation than the control comparison group. Improvement by both groups may
reflect the efficacy of psychiatric inpatient care. However, it appears that the combination of
pharmacological treatment and MSBT may have efficacy in reducing levels of agitation more
The results for apathy indicated that the MSBT group improved above and beyond the
comparison control group. Different from agitation, however, the comparison control group did
not show improved levels of apathy. MSBT may have a beneficial effect on apathy when
combined with psychiatric inpatient care by evoking interest/focusing on the environment.
The MSBT group had improved levels of general independence in ADLs compared to
members of the comparison control group as measured by the KI-ADL. In contrast, no difference
between groups was observed when using discrete ADL assessment (RADL) and when assessing
sweater dressing behavior (BDP). A possible explanation is the KI-ADL’s sensitivity to
identifying levels of functional independence.
Theoretically, the operant paradigm is used to explain the efficacy of MSBT in
improving agitation and apathy and the global functioning in ADL. First, the use of modified
operant procedures were used to match the preferences of the person to the sensory stimuli .
Secondly, non-contingent, automatic sensory reinforcement is theorized to be the active factor in
Controlling for health status and age, both apathy and agitation scores emerged as
significant predictors of KI-ADL performance. RADL performance was predicted significantly
by the proposed model, however, only agitation scores specifically predicted performance on that
scale. Agitation and apathy were not found to be predictive of BDP performance. The finding
that the proposed model containing agitation, apathy scores, and the covariates of physical health
and age predict performance (as measured by the KI-ADL and RADL scales) is consistent with
previous research indicating that these factors negatively impact ADLs . Demonstrating this
relationship infers a theoretical basis to demonstrate how MSBT may improve independence in
ADL functioning, by reducing agitation and apathy.
The current study improved upon previous studies of MSEs. It is hypothesized that by
matching a stimulus (sensory reward) to the person’s preference and using graded intervals of
time to allow people to become accustomed to the MSE environment resulted in no early
termination from the MSBT group. A prior MSE study resulted in four dropouts due to negative
In this study, a non-contingent schedule of reinforcement was utilized . The
presentation of sensory reward was not based on a desired response from the participant or
performance of a behavior at a set time. The use of a non-contingent schedule of reinforcement
combined with orienting/prompting the person with dementia to each type of stimulation differs
from the enabling approach used previous MSE studies .
One class of reward, edible reinforces (food) was excluded from this study even though it
has been a part of the multi-sensory package of stimuli used in MSEs. The positive outcomes
found in this study support the use of sensory reinforcement (visual, auditory, olfactory and
tactile) as classes of rewards in the people with dementia. As individuals experience actions that
lead to reward though engagement in MSBT, meaning may occur, which may lead to subjective
states of well being and behavioral momentum for action which may continue across contextual
MSBT combined with standard psychiatric care reduced levels of agitation and apathy;
central components of BPSD, on an acute care inpatient geriatric psychiatric unit, expands
previous MSE studies, which demonstrated reductions in apathy and agitation in therapeutic
settings such as day treatment programs and nursing homes [7-9].
Previous MSE studies did not account for standard psychiatric care that may have been
received by participants and therefore did not validate MSE as a complementary treatment to
standard pharmacological care [7-9, 16-17].
The current study assessed for stage of dementia utilizing the GDS, which allowed for a
greater specificity of research sample. Controlling for the stage of illness infers that MSBT
combined with standard psychiatric care may be beneficial for moderate to severe stages of
The current study controlled for physical health and age, both of which can negatively
impact on individuals’ ability to engage in ADL despite level of BPSD or dementia. Including
these factors as covariates in the statistical analysis allowed for a more accurate examination of
study variables and demonstrated that the combined treatment is useful despite such differences.
The positive effects of MSBT treatment combined with standard inpatient psychiatric
care appear to transfer from the MSE room to the unit. This finding is consistent with the
Baker’s study  which concluded generalization of the effects whereby improvements in
behavior and mood from a day treatment center were maintained at home. Other MSE studies
failed to detect a transfer of effect from the Snoezelen room to the care environment [16-17].
There are several limitations of the present study. The first methodological limitation of
the study involves instrument selection. Baseline measures of dressing revealed that some study
participants had the capacity to dress themselves. Since these participants were not excluded
from the study, the improvement that was made by these higher functioning participants may
have been too small to be detected due to the lack of measurement sensitivity of the measures
used (RADL, BPD). Behavioral, not cognitive, change is a more important variable in relation to
BPSD instruments at that staging of illness. A BPSD may be more important than gatekeeper
measures such as the MMSE, which may reveal very little about functional change for this
A second limitation, observer bias may have occurred by the use of observational
measures to assess agitation and apathy. The nature of working on a small psychiatric unit may
have revealed the group (experimental or control) of a given participant. However, the group
identity of the participant was less likely to be known by the nurses performing the global ADL
measure due to blinding of raters and the delay between intervention and assessment.
Measuring independence in ADLs on an inpatient unit presented methodological
challenges. No control was exercised in relation to meal time and staff activity during mealtime.
Assessment of toileting was hindered by respect for patient privacy and nurse discomfort
There are limitations in the design of this analysis, particularly sample size yet due to the
pilot nature of the investigation and the rigors of inpatient research. Replication by independent
Future MSBT studies should examine schedules of reinforcement to assess maintenance
of MSBT treatment benefits over time, assessing session frequency and temporal spacing.
Training staff in MSBT methods and procedures and integrating multi-sensory interventions into
care plans may play a role in the efficacy of MSBT treatment to continue post therapy sessions
Behavioral interventions, Strategies for Promoting Independence of ADLs (SPID) has
relative success increasing independence of ADLs in people with dementia . MSBT used in
conjunction with SPID may provide a comprehensive behavioral treatment for increasing ADL
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Participants Assessed for eligibility (n=24)
Expand duration of each session using fixed time
intervals (FT) intervals in minutes: FT 15, FT
Mean ADL Post test Scores Across Study
*Increasing scores denote less
independence. **Decreasing scores denote less
independence All scales were not administered at every session; empty cells denote a scale was not administered.
*Increasing scores denote worse performance.
Donepezil HCI (5mg), Risperidone, (.25mg)
Olanzapine (5mg), Donepezil HCI (5mg/qd)
Olanzapine (5mg/pogd), Donepezil HCI (10mg/pogd), Quetiapine fumarate (25 mg po/daily) Subject #3
Quetiapine fumarate (50mg/qam & 75 mg/qd,
Donepezil HCI (10mg/qd), Quetiapine fumarate
Quetiapine fumarate (100 mg), Citalopram
Quetiapine fumarate, Donepezil HCI, Ginko:
Quetiapine fumarate (dose unknown), Cognitive
Citalopram Hydrobromide (4mg), Ativan (.5mg)
enhancer – type and dose unknown Subject #6
Neurortin (400mg TID), Donepezil HCI (5mg,
Risperidone, Donepezil HCL, Memantine HCL
Risperidone, Divalproex Sodium (doses unknown) Olanzapine (10mg/QHS), Divalproex Sodium
(250mg/BP), Reminyl (4,g/POBD), Haldol (1mg/POQpm)
Olanzapine (5mg/QHS), Zoloft (75mg/POQD),
Klonopin, Quetiapine Fumarate (doses unknown)
Trazadone (150mg), Abilify (15mg), Remenyl
Subject #12 Unable to retrieve medical chart due to Subject #12 Unable to retrieve medical chart due to missing chart number
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