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Designing for Dementia

We are often asked by people visiting the Snowdrop Lane showroom how they can better support a loved one living with Dementia at home. Design in this area is worth following, as new ideas are constantly being innovated to improve the experience for people living with Dementia and to develop techniques that might even slow down the onset of the disease. Care homes are now being created as state-of-the-art facilities, but can we effectively adapt existing living spaces? Can we make the traditional home dementia-friendly? Whilst the condition manifests differently in everybody, and so will always require an individual approach, considerations in the following areas can make a huge difference.

Lighting:

Anybody who has experienced troubled sleep-patterns will appreciate that tiredness can contribute to difficulties in functioning. Studies show that strategic lighting can alleviate the common complaint of sleep problems for those living with Dementia. Light therapy specialists Lumie explain that Alzheimer’s can affect parts of the brain controlling the circadian rhythm. This can mean sleeping sessions during the day; ‘sundowning’ leading to increased agitation in the afternoons and early evenings; and wandering and disorientation through the night. They advise morning sessions to be spent in front of a bright light, and that dawn and dusk simulations can re-align the body clock. The Social Care Institute for Excellence reports that ageing eyes need twice as much light as young eyes and that daylight should be let in wherever possible for optimum vitamin D absorption. They also encourage windows to be kept clean, blinds open, and furniture that may block light flow to be moved. Pools of bright light should be avoided, as should areas with deep shadows as they may cause confusion and increase the risk of falls.

Contrast:

Alz.org reports that vision loss occurs in 60% of people living with Dementia – the extent of which can easily be missed as more obvious challenges such as memory loss take centre-stage. Vision loss might present as an altered perception of depth or colour, motion blindness – and contrast sensitivity. Inconsiderate contrast within the home can act as a barrier. A basic door-mat of a different colour to the floor might appear to be a hole to nothingness, and a sudden stripe, or a complicated pattern, can make a floor or wall look uneven, and cause hesitation and unsteadiness. Reflective surfaces and mirrors can transform a room that appears to the lay-man safe and welcoming into a terrifying vista of strange faces and unexplained motion to somebody living with Dementia. The impact of this can cause panic attacks and set off extreme fear-based reactions, and nhs.uk advises closing curtains at night so that reflections in the window glass do not cause distress.

Conversely, the Dementia Centre has developed a guide that illustrates how contrasting areas can act as a tool for a person living with Dementia. They note that different coloured doors can help people to identify different rooms. Contrasting edging to worktops, corners and doorways can prevent knocks and injury. Furniture of a colour that contrasts with the walls and flooring can help people see where they are and get around. A measure as simple as changing a toilet seat to a contrasting colour to the toilet can help its user to successfully find it, and a similar approach to grab rails can promote their effective use. According to a report from Boston University, people with Alzheimer’s are at risk of vulnerability through weight-loss and often struggle to distinguish foods that are lighter in colour and drinks served in light cups. The ‘red plate’ study found that patients eating from red plates consumed 25 percent more food than those eating from white plates. Red walking frames are also now being employed with the reasoning that they will be easier for people with Dementia to find and use.

These are just a few of the myriad of solutions being developed to help people living with Dementia to enjoy enhanced safety and independence, and we at Snowdrop are always enthusiastic to share our latest findings. Understanding the opportunity and risk of very simple aspects of design can transform a home from one that is riddled with risk to one able to aid, protect and inspire its inhabitant.