Designing for Dementia

The World Health Organisation (WHO) alongside with other leading charities recognises World Mental Health on 10 October every year. To mark this, we are thinking about the estimated one in eight people who are living with a mental health issue. The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is ‘Make mental health and wellbeing for all a global priority’.

Mental health of course covers a wide spectrum of conditions, including dementia.  A leading charity has warned that people living with dementia are at risk of depression and anxiety – particularly in the early stages following a diagnosis. It recognises the need to also support carers and family members who are supporting those living with the condition.

There are an estimated 900,000 people living with dementia in the UK. If you are a carer for a person with dementia (at home or within a care home setting) you can help by identifying appropriate activities and stimulation to help them remain involved and engaged, and by encouraging social interaction and relationships with others. As time passes and their condition inevitably worsens, this can be increasingly difficult, but by persevering with treatment, staying active, and maintaining a healthy diet and hydration, feelings of isolation and loss of identity can be alleviated.

Often confined to our homes during the Covid pandemic, it highlighted to everyone the value (or not) of our immediate surroundings and the associated external spaces beyond (if we had access to one). This issue became more amplified within residential (dementia) care settings during the Covid lockdowns, both for residents and their carers. Persevering with treatment, staying active, and maintaining a healthy diet and hydration remained key, but if the dementia care environment you are living and caring in is a constraining one, the effects of all the above still have their limitations.

As architects with specialist theoretical knowledge and practical experience of designing and delivering new build and extensions to dementia care homes, we are well positioned to assess the post occupancy benefits of our designs, both for the residents and staff alike. Our overarching and inclusive approach of “what is good design for people with dementia is good design for everyone” is applied to our dementia friendly designs, which aim to compensate for impairments with old age, maximise independence, reinforce personal identity and enhance self-esteem and confidence. They aim not only to allow the control of stimuli, but be understandable, orientating, and welcoming to relatives and the local community. In doing all of this they also demonstrate ‘care for staff through design’. Happy, relaxed and calm residents make for happier staff and therefore a greater sense of well-being for all. 

Bedrooms are generally arranged around an open plan ‘Household’ model of communal living facilities, embracing the research and key dementia design principals by the Dementia Services Development Centre and Stirling University’s published Dementia Design guidance. Fundamental to this care model is the sense of openness and navigation around the spaces omitting dead ends which can cause frustration. Our designs incorporate open plan living by removing traditional corridors that provide access to bedrooms. Robust fire engineered safety compliance is employed allowing a highly beneficial social and behavioural setting.

Dementia, good design and mental health go hand in hand and for people living with dementia and their carers, looking after their mental health has never been so important.  Dementia is a degenerative disease.  As architects, we are privileged to be able to play our part, by helping to lessen the true rate of decline with the implementation of design measures that protect welling being and enable people and carers to live well throughout their diagnosis.