Design and dementia

Monday 18 Mar 2013

How can architects design buildings that are better suited for dementia patients?

Dementia is a growing global problem and the provision of care for dementia sufferers is now an issue for governments and communities across the world. Recent statistics by the UK Department of Health show that approximately 750,000 people in the UK have dementia, with this number expected to double in the next thirty years.

As well as this, Alzheimer’s Australia has estimated that there are 1,700 new cases of dementia every week in Australia. With the increasing numbers of people suffering from dementia around the globe, the following questions must now be asked: How do physical surroundings affect dementia patients? Are existing buildings such as care homes and hospitals suitable for people suffering from dementia? What can be done going forward?

Many architects believe that a person’s surroundings and environment can have a profound impact on the way in which they live their lives and interact with other individuals. At the Dementia Services Development Centre (DSDC) at the University of Stirling, Scotland, a flagship building, the Irish Murdoch Centre, has been built to serve as a model for dementia-friendly design. The centre also runs dementia education and training, consultancy services and has a team of architects and design specialists who are experienced in creating buildings and environments for use by people with dementia.

Liz Fuggle, an associate of BPA Architecture who is involved in the DSDC, believes that architecture can have a positive impact on the lives of people with dementia. Speaking about Cairndean House, a 90-bed care home scheme in Scotland, she told WAN that ‘dementia is something that needs specialist help’ and the residents’ environment is a ‘key aspect’ of the design, with the care home being split into 9 flats of 10 people and featuring a dedicated area of central spaces for eating and socialising.

These design solutions and the influence of the environment on the wellbeing of dementia patients were echoed by other architects with whom WAN spoke. William McMorran of Architectonicus worked on Bradbury Court, a £3.2m 24-bed specialist care home in Malvern, UK, which opened in 2012, and said that ‘architecture won’t solve dementia but it can help’.

Speaking about the influence of architecture, he added: “If we can build the right environment, people look and feel better [and the] best way of helping people cope [with dementia] is to see the activity right in front of your eyes.”

Detailing the specific design strategies used on the Bradbury Court project, McMorran emphasised the need for the residents of care homes to feel they had a sense of possession and control over their surroundings. At Bradbury Court, the rooms were designed so that everything can be seen from the bed, including the bathroom and outdoor space and similarly to the BPA project, residents were housed together in small groups. Emphasising the need for continuous spaces, William rejected the ‘hotel/motel’ model of many care homes, saying ‘we can’t keep designing Travelodge-style centres’.

There is evidence to show that innovative and exciting architectural projects can be used in healthcare schemes. Speaking about Maggie’s Centres, the specialist cancer care and support centres designed by world renowned architects including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Norman Foster, McMorran stated that dementia design could benefit from something similar to this high-profile, innovative approach with ‘original thinkers’ needed to spaces for dementia sufferers.

However, it is not just UK architects who are focusing on this growing issue. Architect Martina Hale of Bickerton Masters has worked on various schemes related to dementia in Australia and said design solutions for the disease should find ways to limit decisions, which would in turn limit frustrations.

But in order to come up with design solutions, the challenges facing dementia sufferers must first be looked at and researched by architects and there is some debate over the most effective way of doing this. Martina mentioned that in the run-up to working on dementia designs, she looked at various research papers and attended dementia design events. She also emphasised the role of teaching and university study as being critical for coming up with appropriate design proposals saying that it would be good for architecture students to have the possibility of studying electives which ‘look at ability and disability…and the relationship between environment and space’.

This ability of universities and architecture students to further the development of dementia-related design solutions is evident from a recent study by Masters students at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Design at Carleton University, Canada. Headed up by architecture professor, Federica Goffi, the students were invited to develop new design proposals for Cummer Lodge, a long-term care facility in north Toronto, Canada which houses residents with Alzheimer’s, dementia and Huntington disease.

While these design solutions are speculative, a report of the proposals shows the variety of solutions that can improve the lives of dementia sufferers, including improving air circulation by redesigning windows and doors and the introduction of wayfinding systems which feature textured handrails and visual cues to help the residents find their way around the lodge.

With the increasing awareness of the issues faced by dementia patients, the architectural community together with healthcare professionals has a real opportunity to change the public perception of dementia by offering quality and innovative design solutions for the increasing numbers of people suffering with dementia.

Naomi Wilcock
Editorial Assistant

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