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Grand designs: Designing better residential facilities for people with dementia

With the rates of dementia continuing to rise within Australia’s population, increasing attention is being given to the design of the residential facilities that will be needed in coming years.

While aged care homes are nothing new, designing and building facilities specifically for elderly people with dementia requires a different approach. Everything from floorplans and facilities to lighting and signage must be carefully considered.

The overall aim of any design is to create a facility that feels like a home. Residents may have some reluctance to enter care, and so ensuring their facility is as inviting as possible is very important. Residents need to feel comfortable, secure and connected both with other residents and the surrounding community.

Some of the specific items builders and design professionals need to consider when creating a new facility for those with dementia include:

  • Use of space: Rather than the large shared living areas that are used within many older homes, facilities for people with dementia need to comprise a mix of smaller spaces where people can spend time alone or in smaller groups. This can make the facility feel much more personal and steer clear of having a similar atmosphere to a large hospital ward.
  • Integration with outdoors: To encourage people to spend time outdoors, there should be ready access provided to gardens and lawn areas. Large doors can also be opened during warmer weather to extend the feeling of space and bring the outside inside.
  • Lighting: It can be tempting to deploy downlights as part of an interior design, however these may not be the best choice. Elderly people often spend time leaning back in their chairs and so can end up looking directly at bright lights in the ceiling. More diffused lighting, perhaps wall mounted, could be a much better option.
  • Colour schemes: For many people with dementia, their strongest memories can come from decades ago. For this reason, consideration should be given to using colour schemes and décors that were popular in the 1960s and ’70s. This will help them to feel settled and may aid in recall of past events.
  • Layout of rooms: It is important to have a central position for staff from which they can see down corridors and into common areas. This allows them to provide oversight of residents without them feeling as though they are constantly being watched. It also maintains a strong level of safety and security without becoming too ‘big brother’ like.
  • Self-service kitchens and laundry facilities: While people with dementia will usually need significant assistance with daily tasks, there should still be the ability for them to undertake some themselves. Kitchen and laundry facilities should be functional and clear with an area where less mobile residents can sit and assist.
  • Signage: People with dementia may struggle to understand signs, so making use of images as well as words will help them with recognition and understanding.
  • Low-key perimeter security: Rather than resorting to heavy locks to ensure residents don’t wander off on their own, homes should instead incorporate systems that alert staff if a resident passes through an external gate. This maintains security while also ensuring the facility can be far more open and accessible for visitors.
  • Integration with community: Rather than building dementia care facilities in isolation, consideration should be given to incorporating them as part of a wider precinct comprising conventional residential accommodation and commercial facilities. This encourages people to interact with the aged care residents on a day-to-day basis, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Geographic location: Thought should also be given to where new facilities will be positioned. While some people might like to live in a country or village atmosphere, others may prefer an inner-city location. Having choice will allow people to find a facility that more closely matches their desires.

By taking factors such as these into account, designers and builders will be able to create new residential homes that better match the unique requirements of those with dementia. This, in turn, will improve the levels of care that can be offered and the quality of life residents experience in the years ahead.

“It’s all about how you create an environment for the human being, and how does the human being relate with other human beings,” says Luc Deliens, professor of palliative care research at Belgium’s Ghent University.

Indeed, some philosophies about childcare, such as those of Froebel, Montessori and Steiner, focus on the independence of the (little) person, which is simply facilitated by staff. These basic principles could easily be applied to any care setting, including dementia care.

Katrin Klinger is the director of Collard Maxwell Architects.

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One comment

  1. How refreshing to get some research like this – residential facilities are now the person with dementia’s home, and just because they are mentally incapacitated does not mean that they cannot be “pottering”, doing laundry, dishes, gardening; things they have done for many years. It is this disabling of residents that makes their lives less fulfilled. Put in some animals and you are on the way to making these places more liveable.