A new era for dementia environments

How an understanding of dementia is vital when designing care home environments

In this article, Wayne Taylor, chief executive of SpaceZero, explains why an understanding of how dementia affects a patient is the first step to achieving successful care home design

The definition of successful design can vary, depending on who you ask.

For some, it’s creative use of colour and texture to make the interiors aesthetically pleasing.

For others, it’s effective utilisation of space; giving rooms the ability to shapeshift over the years to provide flexible living.

> Successful design in the care sector is giving residents the ability to navigate a space safely, to aid depleting vision, and to perceive a space as their own home with a feeling of comfort and familiarity

When designing a care home, it’s all this and much more.

Successful design in the care sector is giving residents the ability to navigate a space safely, to aid depleting vision, and to perceive a space as their own home with a feeling of comfort and familiarity. It is only through having a deep understanding of how dementia affects a person – not just their memory, but their ability to adapt, their sight, hearing, balance and capability to live independently – that successful design of dementia-friendly spaces can be achieved.

Throughout Stirling University’s development of its robust set of design standards for care organisations – arguably the most-comprehensive and considered to date – a focus was placed on ensuring the design of dementia spaces could never dissolve into a tick-box exercise. Instead, it’s a set of aspirational, comprehensively-thought-out principles designed to ensure the UK delivers the best in class for dementia patients.

Optimising happiness

Rightly so, it’s about looking beyond basic function – moving away from the idea that box-shifting a list of products will improve care, and instead moving towards a new era of design where the user comes first and foremost, and where the priority is creating safe, familiar, homely environments for the most vulnerable in our communities.

The Dementia Services Development Centre draws on research and practice from across the world to provide training to those working in a capacity to improve the design of care environments.

The training focuses on the importance of materials, lighting, furniture and assistive technology in optimising happiness of residents – which are all highlighted in Stirling University’s standards. Furthermore, it explores how effective implementation of these factors is proven to reduce falls, create calmness and trigger memories thought to be lost.

One missing link or loose cog in the design chain inevitably leads to poor execution of a space’s functions and will prevent integration and co-ordination of the services necessary for a resident to feel truly at home

The specialist training helps those working with dementia patients to gain a true understanding and appreciation of how someone living with dementia has to adapt to their surroundings.

It consists of a series of challenges that restrict vision, sight, sound and movement, to help a trainee appreciate the different obstacles people experience when their senses are disorientated, and how this changes the way they interact with their environment.

The training helps people to develop an empathy that simply can’t be achieved by reading dementia academia alone.

One area focused on perhaps more than any other in the design of dementia care homes is colour and contrast. And, while we run the risk of overanalysing its importance, implementing even the very basics brings about seismic proficiency to a dementia space.

While you and I might associate the colour white with cleanliness, or the colour red with danger, for those living with dementia, it’s a different story.

With a reduced perception of space, and diminishing eyesight, a daily challenge for dementia patients is identifying key features of a home such as the bathroom or stairs.

Drawing attention to these elements using high-contrast colours – a red toilet seat, for example – makes them easier to find, and, in turn, reduces anxiety of the unfamiliar or the risk of a fall.

The opposite can be achieved with low-contrast colours; to distract residents away from areas that should be avoided. For example, doors should be disguised by making them the same colour as the surrounding walls.

Colour and contrast

Colour and contrast is the key to differentiation, and vital in distinguishing the features needed to live an ordinary, everyday life. This shouldn’t be overlooked at any stage in a dementia design process.

When it comes to developing and designing spaces that become the adopted home of people living with debilitating illnesses, the only way to ensure successful design it to see the process as a treatment – a project with a medicinal effect

From the perspective of interior architecture and furniture, fittings and equipment specialists, it’s crucially important when designing spaces of this nature to obtain full collaboration with all concerned contractors, architects and mechanical and electrical (M&E) at initial consultation to ensure all elements of a building’s design are considered for the user.

One missing link or loose cog in the design chain inevitably leads to poor execution of a space’s functions and will prevent integration and co-ordination of the services necessary for a resident to feel truly at home.

When it comes to developing and designing spaces that become the adopted home of people living with debilitating illnesses, the only way to ensure successful design it to see the process as a treatment – a project with a medicinal effect that ensures residents who may be experiencing the unknown, discomfort and unfamiliarity in fact feel the opposite, and enjoy a high quality of life.

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