Sensory System and the Senior Adult

It is no surprise that as we age, our senses are not as sharp as they once were. In fact, the Aging process can affect sensory changes in a variety of ways. But first, let’s …

It is no surprise that as we age, our senses are not as sharp as they once were. In fact, the Aging process can affect sensory changes in a variety of ways. But first, let’s get a better picture of what the sensory system does. People percieve the world around them by sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell through the sensory nervous system. The system converts sensory information into nerve signals that are then carried to the brain. Once there, the signals are turned into sensations, useful for the specific sense it is targeting.  The two most common senses that are affected in seniors is their sight and hearing; however, other senses can also be a factor to some. Our sensory system can affect how we live and what we do. Seniors may not notice simple details or not hear what was said correctly in a conversation. Having sensory issues can also lead to isolation; the senior may feel embarrassed, so they stop socializing with family and friends. And begin to isolate themselves.

According to the National Institutes of Health, almost 67 percent of seniors suffer from two or more sensory deficiencies nationwide. Like sight and hearing, some seniors may also suffer from a loss of taste or spatial awareness. Although sensory impairments can affect anyone, it is more prevalent within older adults, men, African Americans, and Hispanics, according to the NIH. Below are the five senses that can be affected due to age and what seniors can do to help manage their loss.


There are two primary purposes of the ears; one, is to hear, and two, is to help maintain balance. We hear through small sound vibrations as they enter the eardrum and into the inner ear. The vibrations then convert into nerve signals, which fluid and small hairs within the inner ear stimulate the auditory nerve, and are finally carried to the brain to help maintain balance. Unfortunately, as we age the structures of what our ears are made of and their function will start to decline. It becomes much harder to hear certain sounds or even maintain proper balance when simply walking, sitting, or just standing still. Some people, including seniors, may develop hearing loss called presbycusis, which can affect both ears.  Presbycusis is the inability to hear high-frequency sounds, such as speech. Someone with this also may have trouble differentiating between certain sounds. There are a few things that seniors can do to help fix this condition. One is by removing any excess ear wax buildup. This is common for older adults, so stay on top of it. Seniors can manage it by getting a hearing aid as well. If you have this condition, it is recommended to speak with your health care provider soon. 


When you age, sometimes it can affect your vision. How you see things around you can change. Your cornea can become less sensitive to light, preventing a person to not be aware of eye injuries. Over time your pupils may decrease. For Example, an individual in their 60’s may have smaller pupils compared to when they were in your 20’s. Most seniors react slower to light changes, such as if a room is too bright or too dark.

Sometimes older adults have difficulty in seeing the difference between colors. Seniors may find it hard to know blue from green. Or having trouble walking in your own home. If this happens, switching out regular lights to red, dim lights may help. 

Blurry vision is also common in the elderly. There’s not many older adults walking around town without glasses on. In fact, many seniors may experience a condition called presbyopia, which is when seniors or individuals have difficulty focusing their eyes on close-up objects. Your eye doctor may suggest reading glasses, bifocal glasses, or contact lenses to help with this condition. In some older adults other conditions can arise. Many seniors as they age will develop eye disorders. 

These include: Cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye), Glaucoma (rise in fluid pressure in the eye), Macular degeneration (disease in the macula (responsible for central vision) that causes vision loss), and Retinopathy (disease in the retina often caused by diabetes or high blood pressure). Anyone that may be experiencing any of these symptom should seek their primary care physician. 

Taste and Smell

The sense of taste and smell actually work together. When tasting food, you will smell what is presented in front of you before taking the first bite. In fact, most people use all 5 senses when they eat. When you smell, it begins at the nerve endings located in the lining of the nose.

Picture it: you sit down with family or friends for a nice meal and there’s a pleasant aroma coming out from the kitchen. Your total mood just changed. You automatically feel happy, relaxed, and enjoying life. On the other hand, your taste and smell can also detect negative outcomes, such as spoiled food, harmful gasses or smoke. 


Babies are born with about 30,000 taste buds. By the the time we become adults we lose about two-thirds of them, leaving the average adult with only 10,000. Your taste buds do get replaced every two weeks. So, some people may have more or less at a given time. Your taste buds can sense sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors. Most of your sense of taste is linked with odors. As adults become older, their taste buds stop growing or may shrink in size. By the time adults become senior citizens, they are left with only 5,000 taste buds, making it difficult to distinguish between certain smells. By the time seniors are over 60, their five senses start to decline and become more sensitive. You produce less saliva in your mouth as you age as well. 


 A senior’s sense of smell also diminishes as they age, especially after turning 70. This can happen due to the loss of nerve endings and less mucus in the nose. For adults that lose their sense of taste or smell, it can be due to diseases or exposure to smoking or other particles in the air. As a result, an individual over 70 may not be able to sense dangers, such as smoke or natural gas leaks. Sometimes your loss of taste or smell is due to medicine you are taking. Talk to your doctor if you detect this may be a reason. There are a few things you can do to help with this problem. Switching medication might help. Start using different spices in the home that are stronger while preparing food. Seniors can also replace or buy a gas detector with an alarm so you can hear it go off in an emergency. 


The older we get, our skin can become sensitive to touches or vibrations. This is because the skin is much more thinner than when we were younger. Our sense of touch also allows us to be aware of pain, pressure, and even the temperature of an object or person close to you. It is the skin, muscles, joints, tendons, and organs that detect these sensations through the nerve endings inside of them. Our brain will then interpret the type or amount of touch sensation is either pleasant (warm), unpleasant (too hot), or just neutral (like giving you a simple signal that you are touching something). 

For seniors, these sensations may change with age and become less noticeable. This is because the blood flow to the nerve endings are decreasing and it may not reach the brain as fast. The signal receptors to the brain are slower. Those with touch sensitivity should not be left alone in places where they may be in harm’s way. Caregivers may need to check the water heater temperature in the home, lowering it down to no higher than 120°F (49°C) to avoid burns. Many senior may find it hard to know the difference between hot and warm or cool and cold. If this happens, it can increase the risk of frostbite,burns, or hypothermia, which is very low body temperature.

 In some seniors with sensitivity issues, health problems may develop. Having a lack of the right nutrients can cause sensation changes to increase. Other issues can affect sensation changes, such as problems in the brain, confusion, or nerve damage from a previous injury or long-term disease, which can make sensation changes worst. 

Products that help people with sensitivity issues

There are some people that find it difficult to address sensitivity problems or issues. Sometimes, anxiety or stress may develop in seniors with specific sensation impairments or issues. However, there are now products that have proven to assist seniors with these conditions by relieving stress and provide both comfort and calmness. One place to buy these products are at Stacy’s Sensory Solution. They are an online store that offers a variety of products designed to calm and comfort those with sensitivity issues. Each product helps seniors keep their hands and minds active and engaged, no matter what stage of the aging process they find themselves in. The site offers cognitive engagement products, such as puzzles, arts and crafts, and other games to keep seniors alert and focused. Those struggling with touch or pressure may consider buying a weighted blanket, neck wrap, or a lap pad. They also provide items for those struggling with anxiety, restlessness, auditory impairments, and much more. Stacy’s Sensory Solution also has a traditional store located in Dallas, TX, where they originated. 

Tips for Helping Seniors with Sensory Impairment

As a caregiver, you may notice that certain daily tasks become difficult to accomplish as seniors age. This is especially true to those struggling with sensory impairments. However, there are ways to help seniors regain or remain independent throughout their daily lives. Here are five tips for helping seniors with sensory impairments. 

1. Approach seniors slowly

Many seniors who have sensory issues may get spooked or feel uneasy if you approach them to fast. When coming behind them, walk slow and lightly touch their shoulder to let them be aware of your presence. It may be wise to keep children out of the room for those with sensory impairments.

2. Provide all electrical devices with screen readers

Seniors can sometimes have visual impairments as they age. Adding a screen reader software to computers, tablets, and smartphones may help them read better. They are especially useful for those who are completely blind. There are some screen readers where braille can be displayed. Some companies are more expensive than others. However, there are a few inexpensive types, such as ChromeVox and Apple VoiceOver, which assists seniors to navigate through their system swiftly and easily.

3. Talk with your mouth visible to the senior

Some seniors or older adults with sensory impairments find it hard to hear someone talking if they are facing a different way or direction. If they can see you move your mouth while talking to them, this can help them understand what you are saying and be able to focus on the conversation better. With Covid 19 still looming, many caregivers or home health aides still wear face masks. However, there are some clear faceguards available to those in the healthcare field. 

4. Be patient with seniors

For those with hard of hearing, you may need to repeat or rephrase a saying a few times. Always be patient, giving the senior time to respond to the question or task. Some caregivers may need to speak up or raise their voice for a senior with hearing issues to understand or comprehend the conversation. Sometimes just writing down what you want them to do is a better option. 

5. Present foods that look like they would taste

Sometimes seniors loose their sense of taste as they age. However, they may be able to still enjoy and smell the flavors of certain foods. Choosing foods that offer simple and natural flavors in the foods you serve to seniors with taste sensitivity. 

How to help Seniors stay connected

Losing any of the senses can be difficult for seniors. The best thing to do is letting seniors know you are always there when they need you most. Caregivers may want to keep them connected with a senior center that provides hands-on approaches for those with sensory impairments. You can also search for local sensory impairment support groups. 


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