I grew up in my grandmother Ramona’s house. She was a happy and outgoing person. The house was always full of people. In the morning, it was filled with neighbors who took a few minutes on their way to work to have coffee with her, and in the afternoon, the house was filled with friends, children, grandchildren, and nephews. It was a house full of energy and memories of the past.
At the age of 75, my grandmother began to confuse the names of the people who visited her, and it was then that her children realized it was due to dementia. My father, Gildardo, who lived next door to my grandmother, cared for her. He helped her keep track of her medications, stock the refrigerator with food, and ensured she always had what she needed.
My grandmother’s home was a significant part of her life. It was a place where she felt safe and comfortable. It was also a place where she could connect with her memories. She had many pictures and belongings from her life on display. These things helped her remember her past, family, and friends.
Over time, her dementia progressed to the point where she couldn’t do many of the activities of daily living. But her home was where she could get the care and support she needed, so putting her in an institution wasn’t an option for the family.
My father made many modifications to my grandmother’s home to make it more accessible for her. For example, he installed grab bars in the bathroom and non-slip mats in the shower. But her dementia had progressed to the point where even simple activities, like getting a cup of coffee, were becoming difficult, so my dad wondered what else he could do to help my grandma.
How Do People With Dementia Experience Space?
My grandmother’s story is just one example of the user experience of an elderly person with dementia living at home. Given the rapid growth of the elderly population in most countries, it has become imperative to develop national and local policies that strategically serve older people at home without resorting to large-scale institutionalization. Such policies are critical to the well-being of older persons, their families, and the societies that support them.
Studies show that over one-third of older people live in their homes despite declining cognitive and physical abilities. However, not all of them can be considered entirely autonomous, as most cannot function without at least some assistance from domestic staff or family members to carry out their daily activities.
Dementia is a progressive cognitive decline that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. It is caused by damage to brain cells and can be caused by various factors, including age, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. There is no cure for dementia, but there are treatments that can help slow the progression of the disease and improve quality of life.
Independence is essential to meet human needs, and loss of autonomy is one of the most prevalent characteristics of older people with dementia. Today, with the knowledge of neuroarchitecture, we can design environments that can help maintain and even improve their well-being. Also, we can assist seniors in their daily activities with IoT technologies and smart home automation.
How to Support People With Dementia?
There are several ways to use neuroarchitecture to support people with dementia. One is to create environments that are easy to navigate. People with dementia often have difficulty making sense of their environment. This can be due to several factors, including problems with memory, spatial awareness, and executive function. As a result, they may get lost in familiar places or have difficulty finding their way around new places.
Some design goals to help people with dementia navigate their environment include using clear signage, avoiding clutter, and providing plenty of natural light. This includes using signs, landmarks, and other cues to help them orient themselves and find their way.
For example, people with dementia sometimes can’t get a cup of coffee because they forget where the coffee cups are, so a good design goal might be to have transparent doors on kitchen cabinets and closets. That way, they can clearly see where their things are. Another way is to create an environment that is stimulating and engaging, with plenty of activities and opportunities for interaction, and an environment that is supportive and safe.
People with dementia are prone to behavioral changes and experience stress and anxiety. Implementing biophilic design elements can help reduce these symptoms. Biophilia is the innate human affinity for nature and a concept explored by many disciplines, including architecture, psychology, and neuroscience.
There is growing evidence that biophilic design can positively impact human health and well-being. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can help reduce cortisol levels, a hormone associated with stress. In this way, biophilic design can help improve mood and reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.
When it comes to dementia, biophilic design can also help improve cognitive function in a number of ways by providing opportunities for adequate sensory stimulation. People with dementia often have difficulty processing sensory information, and biophilic design can help create environments rich in easily understandable sensory stimuli. This can be achieved by designing with patterns, organic shapes, different textures, or dynamic lighting.
The use of color contrast is another important consideration when designing a home for these individuals, as they often have difficulty processing color, especially those with Alzheimer’s disease. This can cause confusion and frustration.
Some studies have shown that using high-contrast colors, such as black and white, can help them better distinguish between objects, making it easier to navigate their environment and complete tasks independently. Other studies have shown that using colors with high saturation can also be helpful, making it easier to identify objects and people.
In short, when designing an architectural space for people with dementia, it is crucial to consider factors such as:
- Wayfinding: The space layout should be simple and intuitive, with clearly defined pathways and landmarks to help people find their way around.
- Lighting: Adequate lighting is vital for safety and navigation. Avoid harsh contrasts between light and dark areas, and consider using natural light whenever possible.
- Color contrast: The use of bright, contrasting colors can be helpful for wayfinding and can positively affect mood.
- Safety: Avoiding potential hazards such as sharp corners or loose carpets is essential for safety.
- Flexibility: The space should be flexible and adaptable to changing needs, with the ability to close off or restrict access to certain areas as needed.
- Outdoor space and biophilia: Connection to nature and access to outdoor spaces are essential to the physical and mental well-being of people with dementia.
- Accessibility: Make sure the space is accessible to people with mobility issues. Remember that people with dementia have difficulty finding things, so it is important to design furniture so that they can see what is inside.
- Familiarity with the space: Connecting with the past or familiar things is essential to help with memory loss.
Neuroarchitecture can be valuable in helping people with dementia maintain their autonomy. Creating stimulating, supportive, and safe environments will help them stay engaged and independent longer. It is important to design a practical and supportive home that promotes cognitive function, emotional well-being, and social interaction.
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Ana Karen is an architect from ITESO University at Guadalajara, Mexico and a Master in Neuroscience applied to Architectural Design by the University IUAV at Venice, Italy, with a formation in Psychology by the University IEU from Queretaro, Mexico.
In 2015, Ana founded the firm AKA Architecture, bridging neuroscience research with architectural design, her research interests involve the interdisciplinary field of environmental psychology, cognitive science, indoor environmental qualities, and architecture. Her latest research focuses on co-designing a house for people with dementia in order to elongate the time they live in their own houses by improving autonomy and well-being.
Angulo Garibay, A.K., Kyriakopoulou, P. (2022). Place-Prescription for Well-Being and Autonomy for Elderly: A Methodological Approach to the Development of Spatial Qualities on Residential Housing using Neuroarchitecture and IoT Technologies. (Master dissertation, Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia, Italy)