MEMORY SUPPORT DESIGN: The Silent Partner

Within the team of family, caregivers and clinicians caring for someone with memory impairments is an unexpected partner – the space in which individuals live.

Throughout the history of supporting people living with cognitive impairments, environments have evolved considerably from previous iterations that were virtual lockdowns to spaces available today where people can function safely following their own daily rhythms.  This evolution is a direct reflection of the importance the built environment plays in residents’ health and wellbeing.

A carefully designed memory support setting can serve as a silent partner in helping people with cognitive decline live well and potentially help to slow the disease’s progression.

A well-designed space provides cues and guides people to follow daily patterns of eating, sleeping, dressing, or participating in activities, allowing them to live fully in an environment they understand. These cues can be as simple as somewhere to lay out clothes for tomorrow to remind residents to dress in the morning. Red “H” for hot and blue “C” for cold can remind someone to wash their hands. Or, their own furniture from home can remind someone which room is their own.

But to best support people living with dementia, programming must be integrated with the physical environment to give residents the best quality of life. Specialized concepts, such as the Montessori Method, Opening Minds Through Art, The Eden Alternative and the Butterfly Movement serve to provide meaningful experiences through freedom within limits, allowing creative expression, combatting loneliness, and engaging environments.

While there are common design elements across all memory care models, such as wayfinding, access to the outdoors, amenity spaces, and private and community areas, each paradigm carries distinct characteristics that require a different design approach.

Household, small house, and neighborhood models emphasize residential scale, presenting a unique design opportunity to create gathering and activity spaces that support programing in the smaller setting. Programming and design come together replicating the essence of living at home. Designed within those homes are identifiable areas for meals, clusters for visitation, or quiet zones for residents who have difficulty with noise or group settings. Institution elements like staff areas and nursing desks are understated, behind-the-scenes, or virtually non-existent as they are unfamiliar spaces in a home setting.

Memory care design that truly supports residents’ quality of life transcends space and scale, involving all of a building’s features such as lighting and sound control.

As people age, so, too, do their senses and environmental perceptions. Older adults require twice as much light as their younger counterparts, and undistinguishable objects caused by low lighting and weakened vision can cause agitation among memory support residents. For example, a dark patch of flooring can be perceived as a hole in the floor. Bright interior spaces can ease residents’ minds and provide a clearer understanding of their surroundings.

Technology also provides opportunities to compensate for sensory deficiencies among people living with cognitive impairment. Adjustable lighting that imitates natural daylight can improve residents’ sleep, alertness, and mental clarity. Lighting adjustments can be made for the season, activity, or simply resident preference. While programmable options eliminate the need for manual staff control, lighted switches serving as a visual reminder to turn lights on and off provide an alternate option.

Together with light, noise is also a contributing factor of agitation among people living with dementia. Designing for noise attenuation impacts spatial volumes, demising wall construction, finishes, and planned activities within a space.

Many take the built environment for granted, not recognizing the importance that design plays in individual health and wellbeing. When aligned with programming, environments serve as a silent partner in supporting resident needs, reducing stress and anxiety, and fostering wellbeing for fuller lives.


Visit our Memory Support Resource Page to access the white paper and other information.

If you would like to talk to us about design strategies to help your life plan community become more dementia-friendly, please give us a call or click on the link below.

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