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Sensory Machine A Big Hit on Memory Care Floor

Man and woman in front of a machine
Veteran Thomas Wojtasiak, right, uses a color pad to match colors displayed by a mobile therapeutic sensory device, shown in the foreground, at the Community Living Center. Assisting is dance/movement therapist Brianna Martin. The sensory device helps connect Veterans on the memory care floor with their environment.

A therapeutic sensory device at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System’s Community Living Center uses lights and sounds to either stimulate or calm Veterans.

Thomas Wojtasiak, a Veteran who resides in the Community Living Center (CLC) on VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System’s H.J. Heinz III campus, looked carefully at the colorful light show displayed on the machine in front of him.

The machine, a Vecta Delight Mobile Sensory Station, appears to be part lava lamp, part laser show and part bubble machine. It can be programmed to emit colorful lights, project calming images onto the ceiling, and play music chosen for the patient’s needs. Therapists use the recently acquired sensory machine as part of the cognitive training they provide to Veterans.

For some Veterans, the machine’s combination of lights, images and music are calming. For others, they are a source of therapeutic stimulation.

For Wojtasiak, it was all about the interaction.

“It really catches your eye,” Wojtasiak said.

Brianna Martin, dance/movement therapist, handed Wojtasiak two items for controlling the machine: a color pad and squeeze ball.

The color pad is a handheld box with six colorful buttons. Veterans push the buttons to change the machine’s brightly lit colors as they wish. They can also tap buttons at their therapist’s direction to match colors as they are displayed by the machine. The squeeze ball allows Veterans to control the speed of bubbles that float upward inside the machine’s narrow plastic tubes.

“It looks like Christmas over there,” Martin said as she moderated Wojtasiak’s therapy session.

Wojtasiak worked with the multimedia wonder machine for about 10 minutes. He so enjoyed the machine’s calming influence he asked if it could be placed in his room to help him fall asleep at night.

When Wojtasiak finished his therapy, Martin’s assistant, intern Helena Barker from Antioch University in New Hampshire, carefully wiped down the machine, color pad and squeeze ball for the next patient to use.

The Vecta, also known as a sensory cart, has quickly become the most popular and requested therapy at Heinz since its acquisition in September. It has different mood effects on different people. Martin said its sound and vision show can be tailored for each Veteran’s condition.

“The biggest advantage I see is that it helps Veterans to be more connected to their immediate experience or be more present in the moment with either myself or Helena,” said Martin. “We can help them calm down or wake them up to their surroundings more.”

On the wards, nurses have also noticed a difference in their patients.

“With our dementia population, we see episodes of confusion and frustration and the sensory cart helps them keep calm and able to concentrate and focus,” said Michelle Clayton, assistant nurse manager.

The Vecta is easy to maintain because its bubble tubes and most everything else on it are made from high-impact plastic. The tubes are even waterless: A fan in the bottom of each gently circulates Styrofoam balls upward to mimic bubbles.

Martin said the machine has already positively impacted Veterans, including one who can agitate easily and has difficulty falling asleep. Just 20 minutes with the machine calms the Veteran to where he now gently falls asleep.

According to Jamie Sloan, recreation and creative arts supervisor, VA Pittsburgh acquired the sensory machine through a grant from the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agency Appropriations Act of 2020.

 “We purchased it from a local vendor in neighboring Gibsonia and discussed our needs regarding safety, infection control, ease of use, and dignity related to adult versus child components,” said Sloan, explaining the vendor specializes in children’s sensory toys.

“They built a custom machine for us, modifying the equipment for our mature population, easy maintenance, and infection prevention.”

Sloan said the machine will soon be made available for therapy sessions for all residents in the CLC, once standard operating procedures are finalized.

For now, Veterans on the memory care floor can’t get enough of it.

“It’s an awesome tool to use for dementia,” said nursing assistant Michelle McFadden. “They do so well with it; a lot of our patients are very anxious, and it really relaxes them into a whole different zone.”

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