Dignity—something that is often taken for granted—is one of the most fundamental elements of the human spirit. Everyone wants to be valued and respected for who they are. Those needs do not disappear if a person is living with Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia. Translating this innate desire to memory support design solutions demands acknowledgement of each person’s independence and personal choice, regardless of his or her acuity level.
Supporting the needs of people living with dementia requires senior living communities and design professionals to first understand the daily living challenges that a typical congregate environment presents. By identifying these difficulties, memory support settings can be reimagined to nurture independence and meaningful experiences which will, in turn, provide a sense of purpose and personal dignity.
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.
Interior design for wellness spaces allows our team to encourage physical activity, especially for the older adults living in the senior living communities we serve. The benefits of physical activity are well documented, along with the fact that most people need more of it. This is especially true for older adults. A multi-year study by Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging has documented that people living in life plan communities report more healthy behaviors than other older adults, in part due to the ready availability of resources. In recent years, we have seen a number of life plan communities place renewed emphasis on resident health and well-being by expanding or updating their wellness facilities.
Interior designer credentialing reflects a commitment to the highest professional standards. Our firm focuses on senior living and educational facilities. Interior designers must put the health, safety and welfare of the people living, learning and working in those spaces at the forefront of design decisions. As we look forward to a post-COVID future, physical space impacts on health and well-being take on increased significance.
Starting with the Basics: Interior Design Professionals
Although sometimes used interchangeably with interior decorating, the interior design profession requires specialized education and training. Interior design professionals typically earn a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in interior design and/or architecture, have worked in the field for two or more years, and hold National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) certification. The current exam encompasses seven core competencies of interior design: building systems, codes, construction standards, contract administration, design application, professional practice and project coordination. The NCIDQ examination is regularly updated to reflect current knowledge required to design safe, functional and innovative interior spaces.
For both the near term and into the future, senior living is going to look, feel, and function differently. An intensified focus on infection control has drastically altered day-to-day operations which are now viewed through the lenses of health, density, and safety. We are taking a different approach to senior living design strategies, such as space layouts, finish materials or furniture and equipment selections, to help senior living communities respond to changing priorities.
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.
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.
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As we look to the future, there are many questions about how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is going to impact senior living communities.
How will this health crisis reshape consumer priorities and delivery of services to older adults?
Are social isolation requirements and community quarantines causing people to re-evaluate senior housing options?
How do staff members feel about the added pressures they are facing and how is the new normal impacting their ability to provide services?
To start to answer some of those questions and help senior living communities prepare for the future, RLPS was one of the sponsors for a senior living survey of independent living desirability and safety spearheaded by Plante Moran Living Forward and Retirement Dynamics. This survey included independent living residents, prospective residents, and staff members in 70 communities located in 13 states. More than 5,000 survey responses were collected, along with 7,000+ write-in comments and compiled into the final report.
Download the Report
The COVID-19 Sentiment Report will help us better understand how people feel about living or working in an independent living community and how the pandemic is impacting future choices and priorities. The insights from this report will help us reshape senior living communities and services for long-term market strength and resiliency.See More COVID-19 Resources
While social distancing remains a priority, outdoor venues have provided opportunities to get outside and gather in small groups. Restaurants across the country have been able to open outdoor seating areas prior to dine-in options. Many of the current interior design trends for outdoor spaces reflect their popularity for life plan communities, 55+ housing, school and university campuses and hospitality venues.
Even when we are not experiencing a pandemic, biophilic design principles reinforce the value of spaces that meet our innate need for nature connections. The WELL Building Standard calls for its projects to have a biophilia plan to incorporate nature through environmental elements, lighting and space layout. This includes interior settings as well as porches, patios, courtyards, dining terraces, pool decks and rooftop venues that encourage people to get outdoors.
Change can be exciting, frustrating, challenging, disruptive, refreshing and overwhelming. And as illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be abrupt and unexpected. The present challenges to creating safe workspaces, hospitality venues, educational spaces and senior living communities are daunting. Social connections and the use of shared and public spaces are confined to the parameters of social distancing guidelines. However, the renewed focus on healthy environments and infection control may also yield positive COVID-19 design impacts on commercial interior design. Our interior designers share their professional perspectives regarding COVID-19 design impacts, the current realities and anticipated lasting changes.
Over time, things wear out, expectations change, and attitudes adjust. Things will never be as they once were, and the ability to adapt to change is the key to survival. Few community sponsors have the luxury to start over, but all have the ability to reinvent. Reinvention provides an exciting opportunity for good stewardship, while breathing new life into an existing community.
As consumer demographics, product preferences and service priorities continue to evolve, senior living communities can, and must, likewise reinvent themselves to remain relevant.
“In the past, it was not unusual for many of our clients to be the only option in town, but that’s rarely the case anymore,” says Eric McRoberts, AIA. “Even in challenging economic times, providers still need to move ahead, it just might need to be more incremental.”
Whether for financial reasons, land constraints or stewardship of resources, reinvention is a viable consideration. If the existing infrastructure is a good fit for your program goals, substantial value can be gained from building re-use.