Around 7% of Canada’s population is living with dementia, with approximately 76,000 new cases diagnosed each year. While many of these individuals can continue to live in their own homes or supported by family, a significant proportion will, at some point, require residential care.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease cause affected individuals to have difficulty with memory, attention, communication, reasoning, judgment and visual perception. As a result, they may be more prone to getting lost, having accidents at home, and a range of physical health problems including weight loss, tremors, balance problems and blood clots.
Because of their physical and psychological symptoms, people with dementia require specialist care. The quality of this care is improved dramatically when the physical care home environment is designed to address the specific challenges they face.
As we learn more about dementia, this aspect of interior design is moving far beyond the physical tools – such as grab bars, handrails and motion sensors – that are typically used to minimize the risk to people with dementia.
Most interestingly, experts have discovered that visual design elements, particularly those related to colour and contrast, can have a big impact on the safety and wellbeing of these individuals in residential care.
Vision is everything
As we age, our eyesight tends to worsen. Our peripheral vision reduces, along with our ability to see in low light, our depth perception and our sensitivity to contrast. As well as increasing our risk of slips, trips and falls, this waning vision makes our world a less visually stimulating place. For dementia patients, lack of visual stimulation can make the world even more confusing as they struggle to find and interpret the visual cues they once used to make sense of their environment.
Clever use of colour and contrast within care home design can give these people back some independence, improve their safety, and help them to feel less bewildered by their surroundings.
For example, when we want to draw attention to something, we can do so by creating greater contrast, using dark colours against light backgrounds or vice versa. This can help avert accidents by making it easier for people with dementia to see things like doorways, stairs, furniture, toilet seats and grab rails. Contrast can also be used to highlight everyday objects such as light switches and emergency pull cords, which can help to ease anxieties and confusion, as well as promote confidence and independence.
Contrast should also be considered when placing signage in care home settings. Using black writing on a white background, with a large font size and a mix of upper and lower case lettering, can help residents to read and interpret signage more effectively. Bearing in mind that elderly people or those unsteady on their feet often look down when walking, it’s also worth positioning signage much lower down on the wall – perhaps even at door handle height.
Likewise, low contrast can be used to disguise an object or area you want residents to avoid, such as exit doors or entrances to staff areas and storage cupboards. By choosing the same colour for the door and frame as the surrounding wall, the door effectively ‘blends in’ and may not even be noticed by residents, who will be attracted to the doors you’ve highlighted using high contrast instead. These effects can be achieved using painted finishes with matching wall and door protection, or even through the application of printed vinyls to ‘camouflage’ a doorway within an overall pattern or mural.
Low contrast is also an important consideration for flooring in dementia care facilities. Cognitive impairment may hinder the brain’s ability to interpret contrast effectively – so for example, a change in flooring from dark to light can be perceived as a step, while a dark border or inset can look like a hole in the floor. These features can cause hesitation and unsteadiness, which can lead to falls.
Colour is an important consideration for care home interiors that can impact on the wellbeing and also the behaviour of people with dementia. We’re all familiar with the concept of calming vs. energising colours for domestic interior design, and these same principles can be applied to create therapeutic environments for dementia care.
Blue and green, for example, are restful colours that can make rooms seem bigger and bring the outdoors in. Research shows that these colours can have physiological effects, from reducing blood pressure to calming the central nervous system. Pink is thought to reduce aggression, which may be helpful for some patients.
Conversely, bright colours – particularly deeply saturated shades of red and orange – can have an energizing effect. These colours can be used in communal areas such as day rooms and activity spaces, where they provide more intense visual stimulation that can increase overall interest and participation in group activities.
The colour red is also associated with an increased appetite, something that is very important since a large percentage of people with dementia suffer from weight loss as a result of reduced interest in food. Research shows that serving meals on red flatware can increase consumption by 25% for food and 84% for liquids.*
Since we know that visual perception is important in the design of dementia care environments, it must follow that lighting is key. The lighting in a space directly impacts on elements such as colour saturation and contrast, with daylight offering the most accurate colour representation. Therefore, it’s best to maximise natural light in care home design, and to ensure that artificial lighting replicates natural daylight as closely as possible.
At night, creating a dark environment for sleep is shown to enhance sleep quality, reduce the risk of night-time wandering and improve both cognitive and physical ability during waking hours. Window coverings have an important role to play here, as well as reducing light pollution from electrical devices and equipment.
With 20 years of experience, Belroc offers unrivalled expertise in long-term care interiors and can work with architects, designers and facility owners to enhance these environments for the good of residents and staff alike. To find out more about what we do, get in touch!