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How Memory Care Paint Colors Can Help or Hurt Dementia Patients

By Claire SamuelsApril 12, 2022
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Close your eyes and picture a calm environment. Do you see a clear blue ocean, an expanse of green trees, or the warm comfort of a balmy, sunny day?

People with dementia are even more likely to link visual memories and emotions than individuals not experiencing cognitive decline. This means that color selection and arrangement are key components of any memory care community.

“Our everyday experiences are shaped consciously and subconsciously by the environment that surrounds us — especially color,” says Eleanor Epstein, a Los Angeles-based artist and designer.

It’s important for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia to reside in a space that promotes physical and mental well-being. Certain memory care paint colors and patterns are able to evoke emotions that can reduce agitation, combat aggression, and even stimulate memory. Intentional color selections can dramatically change the way your loved one interacts with their environment.

Choosing a memory care facility with the right color palette can help positively change a senior’s mood, prevent accidents, improve their eating habits, and increase participation in activities.


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Why color matters to memory care patients

“Color has an everyday impact on our psyche, and it has the ability to shift our mood,” says Epstein.

This shift is especially evident in seniors, as older adults are most likely to form connotations between emotional memories and positive colors, according to Harvard University research.

Why? As other senses diminish, color may be more easily distinguishable than other environmental cues.

Cognitive changes and the importance of memory care paint colors

Not only can color influence emotion, but it can also enhance a senior’s understanding of their environment.

Cognitive abilities and eyesight can diminish over time. Objects may become more difficult to differentiate, and things that a person without dementia would easily be able to tell apart may become harder to distinguish. This can lead to difficulty discerning a bathroom from a bedroom, finding food on a plate, or dressing in matched clothing.

There are three general categories of change in cognitive ability that make it harder for people with dementia to maneuver through spaces, according to Libbi Hash, national director of wellness and memory care at Kisco Senior Living. Remember these factors when considering how memory care paint colors affect loved ones with dementia.

  1. People with dementia perceive color differently. Color preferences may change as dementia progresses. Vibrant, “hot” colors like neon shades can cause confusion and stress, according to the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
  2. Dementia compromises depth perception. In the late stages of dementia, vision may become limited. Individuals with memory impairment often have trouble judging distances, seeing contrast between similar colors, or properly identifying a dark object in a dim area. This can lead to falls and wandering.
  3. Motion blindness is a common side effect of dementia. Motion blindness is a type of visual impairment that makes it difficult for people with dementia to see where they’re going — or even if they’re moving at all, according to research from the University of Rochester. When paint colors shift between rooms and hallways, a senior with cognitive decline is able to perceive spatial changes they may otherwise not notice.

Memory care communities keep these three key factors in mind when choosing paint colors to help seniors adapt to their environment confidently and independently.

The effect of memory care paint colors on residents with dementia

Designing memory care communities isn’t about following the latest trends — it’s about choosing colors that create a calm, healing environment that best influences the lives of residents.

The effect of paint colors on memory care patients is no secret: Even prominent paint brand Sherwin-Williams has designed a specific color palate for use in memory care communities. This vibrant-yet-soothing collection is intended to help residents distinguish between spaces as they navigate the community.

Memory care paint colors affect resident behavior and emotion

“As a patient with dementia moves through different spaces, the use of contrasting colors can help prompt behaviors,” says Epstein. “The muted blue of a sitting room can induce feelings of calm and relaxation, whereas bright yellows and greens of a kitchen or dining area send energizing cues to the brain, perhaps stimulating appetite.”

Hash suggests using a basic color palette, not too vivid or bright, like blues and greens with a pop of orange. Some memory care paint colors that can have a significant impact on emotion include:

  • Black and gray, which lead to higher levels of anxiety, frustration, and ambivalence, according to research published in Frontiers in Psychology.
  • Blue, which encourages calm and restfulness when used in the appropriate environment, according to the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research. Depending on the tone, blue may even have a physiological impact and reduce blood pressure.
  • Green, which can reduce central nervous system activity and make a room appear larger and more open, according to Hash. “The sage green of a bedroom can bring us back to our connection with the planet and our harmony with nature,” says Epstein.
  • Red, which can be seen as the diametric opposite of blue, according to pioneering color theorist Robert Gerard’s classic 1958 experiments that serve as a foundation for contemporary color research. Red and orange can be used to stimulate depressed patients and promote alertness and brain activity. Since red may also have negative connotations, it’s ideal as an accent in exercise and activity rooms and shouldn’t be used in a large-scale context.
  • Orange, which is great if you’re looking to add a pop of color. This warm color, when paired with earth tones, may simulate the outdoors and nature, says Hash. You can add this pop to blues and greens to create contrast and flow in a room.
  • Light pink, which can ease aggression and feel welcoming, especially for women. However, the effect of pink depends dramatically on the shade, according to research from Georgia Tech.

Learn how memory care paint colors can help your loved one in memory care.

Memory care paint colors can increase safety

“There’re so many factors that are out of our control when it comes to dementia, things that we can’t fix or make better. But color stimulation or de-stimulation is one thing we can control and do really well,” Hash says.

Choosing the right palate of memory care paint colors can dramatically influence an environment from a safety standpoint as well as an emotional one. Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing colors to keep dementia patients safe.

Prevent spatial misperception. Avoid dark rugs, bathmats, and other floor coverings. Dark colors can look like vacancies to dementia patients — they may perceive these objects as holes to be avoided and attempt to navigate around them, causing both anxiety and potential falls.

Keep contrast in mind. A dementia patient with limited eyesight and depth perception may not be able to distinguish a white toilet from a white wall, or strawberries from a red bowl. Using contrasting paint colors can help clearly define objects, preventing bathroom falls or toileting accidents.

Identify doorways. Since dementia patients may have trouble wayfinding, it’s important to distinguish spaces with color and design to avoid anxiety and confusion. By differentiating resident doorways with paint colors, posters, or memory boxes rather than just nameplates, it’s easier for individuals to find their own rooms. This prevents the potential fear or aggression that can come from entering another resident’s apartment.

Camouflage exits. Visible exits can lead to attempted escape from memory care facilities. Trying to open secure doors could cause injury, anxiety, or bruising. By matching the color of exit or stairwell doors to the surrounding walls, memory care communities can reduce the likelihood of these incidents.

How to choose a memory care community

When touring a memory care community, ask how they’ve used color to enhance the resident experience. Be on the lookout for conscious design choices like contrast, color in activity areas, and color-coded halls and doorways.

Reach out to A Place for Mom’s free, local Senior Living Advisors to schedule tours, get tips on what to look for, and learn more about memory care design. They can answer any questions you may have and help find the best match for your loved one’s interests and needs.

Original draft contributed to by A Place for Mom staff writer Mary Salatino.

Sources

Dementia Enabling Environments. Colour perception and contrast.

Gerard, R. (1958). Differential effects of colored lights on psychophysical functions. University of California Press.

L. Hash, personal communication, March 10, 2022.

Mammarella, N., Di Domenico, A., Palumbo, R., & Fairfield, B. (2016, September 15). Whengreen is positive and red is negative: Aging and the influence of color on emotional memoriesPsychology and Aging, 31(8), 914-926.

Maserati, M.S., Mitolo, M., Medici, F., D’Onofrio, R., Oppi, F., Poda, R., De Matteis, M., Tonon, C., Lodi, R., Liguori, R., & Capellari, S. (2019, August 27). Color choice preference in cognitively impaired patients: A look inside Alzheimer’s disease through the use of Lüscher color diagnostic. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(1951).

Mikellides, B. (1990). Color and physiological arousalJournal of Architectural and Planning Research 7(1). 13-20.

Sherwin-Williams. Senior living colors.

Territo, D. (2016, October 23). Can different colors influence a person with dementia? Here’s what to know. The Advocate.

University of Rochester. (1999, March 22). ‘Motion blindness,’ not just poor memory, causes Alzheimer’s patients to lose their way.

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal, or financial advice or to create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

Author
Claire Samuels

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