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How thoughtful interior design can turn a dementia facility into a home

Can an aged care facility, particularly one designed for residents living with dementia, feel anything but institutional? With a thoughtful approach to interior design, the answer is most certainly yes, even for developers whose budgets are modest.

Australia is experiencing growing demand for specialist facilities as the population continues to age. An estimated 425,416 Australians are living with dementia in 2018 and in the absence of a medical breakthrough, this figure is projected to rise to around 536,000 by 2025 and more than 1.1 million in 2056.

The National Framework for Action on Dementia 2015–2019 notes that an enriching and meaningful environment can enable people with dementia living in residential aged care facilities to remain socially engaged. A safe, secure and homely environment can reduce confusion and agitation, improve way finding and encourage social interaction.

For aged care providers, delivering a high-quality care experience means striving to provide physical comfort to residents, while taking measures to mitigate the risk of undue harm.

Designing facilities to give them as much of the look and feel of a private residence as possible can help achieve these ends.

The heart of the home

Moving house has long been recognised as one of life’s more stressful experiences, and for those living with dementia, the loss of familiar places and spaces can be particularly distressing and disconcerting. Ensuring their new dwellings feel warm and homely can help reduce feelings of insecurity and vulnerability and make the settling-in process smoother.

A centrally located kitchen can do much to make residents feel they’re living at home, not in a home. Being able to smell and see food cooking – and, for those who are able, to lend a hand in its preparation – makes for a less institutional experience than the delivery of meals on trolleys from a kitchen that’s out of sight and out of bounds.

Similarly, short hallways and bedrooms clustered college-style around a common living area create a more intimate feel than endless corridors and bedrooms identified only by numbers. Illuminated memory boxes that can hold photographs and personal mementos can be an excellent substitute for the latter – and an effective aide memoire for individuals with dementia, when installed outside bedroom doors.

Bedrooms that enable residents’ choice of decor to be easily ‘slotted in’ can make customising personal spaces simple and economical. If picture rails are installed as standard, photographs and paintings can be displayed without difficulty or damage, while offering a selection of easily hung curtains allows new residents the opportunity to make a room their own.

Soft surfaces

While tiled and vinyl floors are durable and practical, they look and feel hard and can reverberate sound in a way that’s distressing to individuals with dementia, particularly those experiencing sensory disturbances. Soft surfaces are preferable and ideally carpet should be laid throughout common areas, corridors and bedrooms.

Care with colour

Selecting colour schemes for dementia facilities is something of a science. There are guidelines which limit the ability to mix and match with impunity. Chief among them is a requirement for a contrast of at least 30 per cent between floors, walls and sitting surfaces, to assist residents in differentiating between the three.

The result is typically dark floors, light walls and soft furnishings in shades somewhere between the two. Loud prints and flamboyant geometric patterns are off limits, as it’s thought they may make some individuals with dementia feel uneasy.

While a surfeit of institutional white, grey or beige is to be avoided so too are excessively bright and primary colours, which can give a facility a childcare centre vibe.

A generous allocation of paintings and prints in soothing shades can soften the ‘sameness’ without creating sensory overload.

Spend where it counts – and not too often

Allocating additional budget to fit out one or two high traffic or communal areas such as lobbies and lounges can give a facility a luxurious feel, even if decor throughout the rest of the premises is modest.

And while regular redecoration is unremarkable in both institutional environments and private homes, it should be undertaken with caution in a dementia facility. Making changes in any home slowly and subtly gives residents the time they need to get used to the new.

In conclusion, any well-designed space will positively impact upon a resident’s sense of belonging, general wellbeing, health and safety.

Katrin Klinger is director at Collard Maxwell Architects.

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2 comments

  1. Rarely have I read such condescending drivel. People living with advanced dementia have lost cognitive awareness, they sadly lose their socialisation skills and even how to eat or their families names. To suggest that they could safely participate in kitchen duties and appealing to their sensory needs is just ignorant. Have you heard of OH&S or infection control etc?
    As to soft carpeting and the other written nonsense… these people, not all, will absently pour their drink or drop their meals and be amazed that it goes on the floor. Regrettably they revert to infancy and it just infuriates me when I read such ill informed nonsense AND worse that the media prints it!

  2. Thank you for your comment Anton. We apologize if some of those ideas in our article might have lacked some context or clarity and did not hit home for everyone. There are obviously different levels of Dementia, and with Dementia on the rise we are seeing renewed interest from facilities operators lately. We are seeing a lot of innovation in Dementia Care, and while only time can tell in most cases, some of those ideas might eventually be found to have merit. One recent example from Japan comes to mind:

    On a recent trip, where we visited State-of-the-Art Dementia facilities, we witness one facility with a beautiful central kitchens and even small kitchenettes within some of the rooms (for tea). These facilities were detailed carefully, secured, and intended for family members and social workers to FEEL welcome and “AT HOME”, a feeling which research shows has a direct impact on the service and overall quality of the living environment.

    But what is a Home? What makes up the SPIRIT, or HEART of a home? Every facility strives to be a home in their own ways, and we believe there is a lot more to it than a certain look. We look forward to exploring the idea of a home in our next research!

    Charles Fortin
    Managing Director
    COLLARD MAXWELL ARCHITECTS