In the United States, an estimated 6.5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. That number is expected to rise to over 12.7 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association 2022 Disease Facts and Figures report. It’s no wonder so many resources are given to dementia research, and not just on the prevention front.
You may have noticed a loved one with dementia having difficulty interacting with their surroundings. That’s because dementia causes cognitive decline, making it difficult for them to complete daily tasks, engage with others, and navigate their environment. Perception itself is also an issue for individuals with dementia, and research is underway to understand how and why this is so. The good news is, researchers’ growing understanding can help with you with memory care decorating ideas.
It’s important to create an environment for your loved one that is easy for them to navigate with minimal help. Whether you’re updating a family home or looking at memory care communities, these memory care decorating ideas will help create a comfortable space for your loved one.
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Memory care patients’ needs change across rooms, times of day, and over long periods of time. That’s why the physical environment is important for individuals with dementia and other memory care-related issues. Intentionally designing memory care communities is a way to promote well-being, functionality, and safety for residents. But, design can also have a more practical application: safety. A common safety concern for those with dementia is wandering.
A person with dementia may wander for many reasons, such as looking for someone or a specific room. They may even wander because of visual-spatial problems that impact their guidance and navigation. It’s also common to search for an exit, due to feeling trapped and confused by the environment. Because of the memory loss caused by dementia, if your loved one wanders, they are likely to get lost.
Thoughtful design can also mitigate safety risks such as falling and other hazards. Hazards include slick flooring, dim lighting, and furniture placement that doesn’t accommodate walkers or wheelchairs. The goal is to design an environment that your loved one can move freely through on their own or without much help.
Some examples of memory care design that improve safety include:
Making even the smallest changes to your loved one’s home, or looking for a memory care facility that has the appropriate decorative elements, makes long-term differences for individuals with dementia.
Patrice Goldberg, director of interior design at Kisco Senior Living, suggests focusing on the following design elements to make your loved one’s space more dementia friendly.
Hanging artwork throughout your loved one’s home is a great way to add positive stimulation. When selecting artwork for your loved one, Goldberg suggests staying away from overly bright pieces, as the color tones might cause stress or confusion. Memory care artwork should be very literal — the concepts should be something that’s easy to interpret simply by looking at the photo, such as a man taking his son fishing, Goldberg says. Abstract artwork can cause stress for individuals with dementia because photos like these are hard to understand. Your loved one may become frustrated that they don’t understand the art, or they may become agitated as they struggle to decipher the photo.
Displaying your loved one’s artistic creations is another way to make their environment familiar. Allowing them to view their artwork can help them make connections and add a personal touch to their space. It’s difficult for seniors with dementia to live in the moment and interact with their surroundings, so encouraging stimulation through artwork can help them feel more present.
Although sensory stimulation has many benefits, there are downfalls to having too much. Overstimulation can make it difficult for individuals to concentrate, which may lead to frustration, anxiety, and confusion. Eliminate bright patterns, abstract artwork, and contrasting color pallets to provide the most sensory comfort.
The science behind the decor
Interacting with artwork increases alertness and concentration while allowing individuals to reflect and ease into communication. Observing artwork boosts cognitive functions in various areas of the brain, including brain wave patterns, emotions, and the nervous system. Art can also raise serotonin levels, a chemical messenger in the brain that stabilizes and boosts mood and produces healthy sleeping patterns.
Artificial and natural lighting is important for many reasons. Lighting has the potential to foster a positive relationship between the individual and their environment. Good lighting helps individuals with dementia see and interact with their surroundings, can increase their willingness to participate in activities, and enhance their mood. Avoid harsh or blinking lights — such as twinkling lights — because they may cause agitation and confusion, Goldberg says.
Purchase a lightbox or light therapy lamp to add natural-looking light to the environment. Keep windows open as much as possible before dark, and then transition to a soft, artificial light as the sun goes down. Consider adding motion-sensor lights to high traffic areas, such as the bedroom and bathroom, to provide extra safety and independence.
The science behind lighting
By age 75, most people require twice as much light as the normal standard to be able to see comfortably. People with dementia may experience visual defects that impact the way they respond to their environment. Vision changes can include extra sensitivity to glare and light in general, and a loss of depth perception and the ability to note contrast, among other things.
Perhaps most importantly, a lack of natural light can cause sundown syndrome, a behavioral shift that occurs during the transition from daylight to darkness. Individuals who experience this may feel depressed, agitated, or confused as it gets dark outside. Although the cause of sundown syndrome is unknown, there are triggers to avoid and ways to manage symptoms.
Dementia can cause vision loss that can pose some physical challenges. Creating contrast between objects can help individuals with vision loss to better see and navigate their surroundings. If the walls are a light color, add a rug just a couple of shades darker to add some contrast. To prevent falling accidents, avoid very dark or black rugs on the floor. Your loved one may perceive them as a hole in the ground, which can cause distress.
The science behind color contrast
Changes in the eye occur as people age, which affects vision and color perception. The thickening and yellowing of the lens, a part of the eye through which light travels and which focuses on objects at varying distances, changes the way that color is perceived. This makes it difficult to differentiate colors, notice subtle environmental changes including carpet and stairs, and vividness of colors, making reds look like pinks.
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Although some design elements may be hard to implement in your loved one’s home, there are some easy steps to take to make the environment flow better. Libbi Hash, national director of wellness and memory care at Kisco Senior Living, suggests adding signs around the home to minimize your loved one’s confusion and prevent wandering. Label their room, the bathroom, the kitchen, and other important objects and areas that they frequent.
The science behind design flows
Signage draws attention to rooms you want your loved one to use. To help your loved one move around the house easier and frequent certain rooms, use red signs, Hash says. Red attracts the eye quicker.
Decorating for memory care is important in order to help your loved one maintain as much independence as possible while minimizing the confusion and depression that can come with dementia. Understanding the way individuals with dementia interact with their surroundings will help create a home where they can feel safe and comfortable. If you need help finding a memory care community for your loved one, reach out to one of our local Senior Living Advisors to help you find the right fit.
American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine. How the brain is affected by art.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, October 26). Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
Goldberg, P. (2022, March 11). Personal communication. [Phone interview].
Hash, Libbi. (2022, March 10). Personal communication. [Phone interview].
Mayo Clinic. (2020). Alzheimer’s: Understand wandering and how to address it.
Schneider, J. (2018). The arts as a medium for care and self-care in dementia: Arguments and evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Seifert, K., Spottke, A., & Fliessbach, K. (2017). Effects of sculpture based art therapy in dementia patients — a pilot study. Heliyon.
Wang, G., Marradi, C., Albayrak, A., & Cammen, T. (2019). Co-designing with people with dementia: A scoping review of involving people with dementia in design research. Maturitas.
Warner, C. (2018) Warner Design Associates. Must haves for memory care interior design.
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