THOUGHTFUL DESIGN: Interior Design for People with Dementia

collage of various interior design ideas for people with dementia

Professional interior design melds functional and aesthetic qualities of spaces with current codes to protect public health, safety and welfare. Interior design for people with dementia requires additional considerations to respect each individual without compromising dignity or comfort.

Memory support since the 1990s
Fostering outdoor connections is one design principle that has not changed. This photo is from The Sylvestery at Vinson Hall in the early 2000s.

RLPS has been designing senior living communities since the 1950s.  Specialized settings to support people with dementia emerged in the early 1990s and demand has increased significantly since that time. More recently, some senior living communities are moving away from a separate setting for people with dementia. This integrated living approach requires appropriate staff training, effective use of technology and community-wide supportive strategies to provide safe and comfortable living spaces for all senior residents regardless of cognitive abilities.

There is no single “right” answer. Our team draws on evolving research, specialized programs, and input from our clients to inform our approach to support the needs of people with dementia through interior design. For example, intentionally designed spaces for programs such as Montessori or Opening Minds through Art (OMA), function as a silent partner reinforcing these research-based initiatives.

small house interior and adult day center painting activity at Williamsburg Landing - interior design for people with dementia
The paired small houses and adult day center for Williamsburg Landing accommodate newly implemented evidence and behavior-based therapy and support programs for people with dementia.

Effective interior design for people with dementia promotes independence, comfort and well-being.  The following strategies highlight just a few of the many design considerations for spaces intended to support people with dementia.

artwork and bright yellow door at a household at Village On The Isle - interior design for people with dementia
The artwork and bright yellow door for this household at Village On The Isle provide wayfinding cues.

Improving Wayfinding for People with Dementia

  1. Vary the flooring material pattern outside each cluster of doors.
  2. Vary the trim, pattern and/or color in each entryway.
  3. Consider changing the door style for each bedroom.
  4. Utilize distinctive, varied, simple and non-abstract artwork.
  5. Consider including memory boxes, curio cabinets, personalized screens or mailboxes outside individual rooms.
biophilic design at legacy place - interior design for people with dementia
A significant body of biophilic design research has established that both direct and simulated connections to nature promote health and well-being, even for those who cannot be physically outdoors.  Therefore, we focus on bringing elements of the outdoors inside – whether sunlight, natural materials, outdoor views, artwork pieces or finish selections featuring organic shapes, colors and forms.

Interior Design Strategies for Appealing Common Spaces

  1. Keep spaces open and easily accessible with variety between them.
  2. Focus on open shelving and activity options clearly visible to residents.
  3. Relocate equipment and services behind the scenes: residents should have access to anything they can see.
  4. Implement strategies to divert attention from service areas through layout, lighting and/or finish treatments.
  5. Incorporate absorptive materials to reduce the amount of sound that can bounce around.
Tunable LED lighting at arbor acres
Tunable LED lighting, that adjusts color temperature output based on natural daylight patterns, can help to alleviate sundowning issues.

Resident Room Interior Design Strategies for People with Dementia

  1. Encourage use of resident’s furniture, allow flexibility for preferred bed placement.
  2. Incorporate casework to promote personalization and familiarity
  3. Utilize as much indirect lighting as possible. Consider tunable LED lighting that adjusts levels during the day based on biorhythmic patterns.
  4. Provide an alcove for eating with visiting family or friends or for residents who have difficulty with noise or other people in dining areas.
Grab bars in an accessible bathroom shower
Grab bars are provided in a contrasting color so they are more visible while the fully accessible roll-in shower avoids the tripping hazard of a threshold.

Interior Design Concepts for Resident Bathrooms

  1. Consider a lighted switch as a visual reminder for resident room and bathroom lights.
  2. Consider motion sensors that gradually illuminate the room and bathroom
  3. Provide contrast between grab bars and walls, toilet seat and floor.
  4. Avoid motion faucets, consider rotating off-center to improve visibility or double handled faucets, clearly marked hot or cold.
  5. Review options for obscuring the mirror: placing sinks and mirror so reflection is not visible when entering the room; provide a shutter or artwork that can be placed over the mirror; or locate the mirror on the inside of the cabinet door.

Particularly at this time of focusing on infection control, it can be easy to revert back to medical practices and appearances. Our team is diligently working with our clients to respect resident safety while also considering quality of life by helping to create spaces where people with dementia will want to live. For common area and public-facing spaces, we focus on design-forward universal cues to reinforce social distancing and traffic patterns. Likewise, we can assist with the addition of hand sanitation stations that are appropriate to the living space. We are also assisting clients with reprogramming studies to allow for living rooms and other adjacent spaces to be used for dining during times when residents need not be quarantined to their rooms, but social distancing is needed.

Blog Editor:  Jodi Kreider, LEED AP

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