Feeling at home - deliberate design for dementia

We know that dementia doesn’t discriminate, with people from all different walks of life affected by the disease.  The risk increases as we age, with 1 in 10 people over the age of 65 with dementia, and a further 3 in 10 affected in the over-85 age bracket.


Impact of dementia

This can be an alienating and frightening disease. Those with dementia grapple with memory loss, difficulty maintaining focus, diminished language skills and emotional unrest. Physically, they also face a decline in their motor skills, coordination and visual perception.


On top of all this, the surroundings they’d usually take so much comfort in, like their homes, can be replaced with impersonal residential facilities or clinical hospital settings.


One of the ways to combat all this unfamiliarity is to design specific environments for people with dementia, providing comfortable and inspiring spaces not only within their homes, but in aged care facilities too.


Effects of poorly-considered dementia design  

With all these various effects of dementia, it’s common that someone with the condition can find it quite difficult to sometimes make sense of their world. Design has a huge part to play in this.


For example, if a facility you’re using for a loved one has features like overhead nurse call systems, shiny, heavily-patterned floors and poor colour combinations, what they’ll likely see in their clients is:


  • a surge in trips and falls
  • increased agitation, anxiety and confusion from the over-stimulation or sometimes under-stimulation that their environment affords


How deliberately thought-out design can help

Design influences behaviour, attitude and activity. It impacts the way we move and how we carry out activities - and it controls what we hear and what we can see.


When it comes to dementia design, it’s important to design an environment that’s both user-friendly and provides intuitive cues. For example, storing soap and shampoo directly below the shower head in the bathroom – or keeping a kettle visible on a kitchen surface, serving as a reminder of the steps to take when making a cup of tea.


Some dementia design pointers

The process of design decision-making should always be from the perspective of the person with dementia.  We need to design for their needs and create spaces that add value to their lifestyle and provide elements of choice in everyday living. This encourages their level of independence so that they can participate in everyday meaningful activities.


Anyone involved in dementia care can have a role in improving environments. 10 key steps to bear in mind include:


  1. Being aware of the visual and acoustic surroundings, and understanding how physical surroundings can trigger behaviours
  2. Creating environments that are small and home-like, creating rooms with different functions and breaking down larger spaces into zones
  3. Ensuring spaces feel relaxed and have the qualities and comforts of home – like cosy furniture, aromas of food cooking and books to read
  4. Designing spaces that are culturally and generationally appropriate – in relation to the fittings, entertainment and everyday household items
  5. Reducing the impact of internal noise by turning off unnecessary devices, e.g. not leaving the TV on all day because of the assumption that people are interested
  6. Choosing suitable floor materials, e.g. carpet and vinyl rather than tiles as these are softer materials and help to minimise noise and foot traffic
  7. Improving the visual interpretation of the person’s space by using colour contrast adequately
  8. Creating an appropriate lighting level so that the person can clearly see what’s around them
  9. Using signage (images, rather than just words) that the person can understand and that supports their independence
  10. Ensuring for safe and easy access to outside, with doors to outdoor garden spaces clearly visible


These insights are merely the tip of the iceberg and there’s a wealth of information and advice that Alzheimer’s Queensland can give you, whether you’re a carer or service provider of aged care services.


Our staff include a design manager and occupational therapists who’ve been trained in dementia design. We’ve been undertaking refurbishment projects across our residential homes and centres using dementia design principles and are on-hand should you have any questions.  

If you’d like to find out more about dementia design, call our 24-hour Advice Line on 1800 639 331.



Words: Ash Anand