Living with Dementia & How Good Design Can Help

by Trisha Hale | IIDA, NCIDQ | Designer

More than 7 million Americans aged 65 and older are living with dementia, many suffering from one of the most progressive forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s. While this mind-altering disease impacts a vast number of individuals each year, I wanted to share my own story so those who have not been personally affected can gain a better understanding of dementia. I would also like to offer insight on the positive impact good design can have on a living environment from my unique perspective as an Interior Designer specializing in the senior living market.

Many people hear the term “memory care” and don’t fully understand its meaning. Memory care is a higher level of care in a senior living community where the resident has suffered the loss of their memory retention from the progressive disease, Alzheimer’s (or another form of dementia). This level of care consists of higher trained staff, greater security measures and limited independence to protect the safety of at-risk residents while also providing them with the best quality of life despite their impairments.

My beautiful grandmother, Patricia, lived comfortably in a large house in Holiday Shores, IL for most of her adult life.  A mother of 6, avid baker and self-taught seamstress, she is one of the most self-sufficient and creative people I know. My family moved her into a care community a few years ago after we noticed she was not taking care of herself the way she used to; for instance, she stopped cooking and became increasingly forgetful. Her official diagnosis was short-term dementia, which affects short-term memory, the slowing of brain cell communication that presents itself in forgetting how to do menial tasks like cooking, cleaning, and recalling recently-learned information. She’s fortunate enough to still understand the world around her and is able to perform basic tasks so she resides in an assisted living community. She is, however, in a community where if her dementia worsens, she can be transitioned into memory care and will already be familiar with the community, staff and residents.

Grandma Pat

My husband’s wonderful grandmother, “Gigi”, was also recently diagnosed with short-term dementia. A couple of falls, a broken hip, and two brain bleeds later she is, unfortunately, unable to recall some of the most basic things. This woman that was a wife, mother, grandmother, professional cleaner, extremely organized, stubborn, independent, comical, and a notably caring and considerate person, changed in what felt like a moment. She now lives in a memory care community, and through my own experience with my grandmother, Pat, I have a much better understanding of what the families and residents are facing. It is hard to see your loved ones transform from the vibrant person they once were. That is why it is so important these communities are designed purposefully and appropriately to allow residents to live comfortably while assuring their families are getting the care they need and deserve.

In some of the memory care communities Spellman Brady & Company has worked on, we have designed “reminiscence rooms”, which are areas for residents to explore to jog memories of everyday life. These areas include “life stations” such as dolls to rock, feed, and care for, costumes to play make-believe, laundry to fold and iron, and a writing desk to draft letters. We heard from one senior living location that a resident sat at the desk station every day, writing hall passes, as it brought back memories of his days as a school principal. It’s vastly important to remember these residents had long, beautiful lives before they were touched by dementia. As much as we can do to spark even the smallest memory it can provide residents with a little bit of comfort and normalcy. Our goal as senior living interior designers is to maintain residents’ dignity while also providing safe and nurturing environments for them to thrive.

Here is Gigi, who was so excited to become a great grandma and absolutely loves “her” great-grand babies. Her community makes sure she always has a baby doll to hold and care for as this brings her abundant happiness. When we visit her, she doesn’t always remember us, but if we bring our little ones she lights up.

To find out more about dementia & Alzheimer’s – and how you can help affect the trajectory of these life-altering diseases – visit the Alzheimer’s Association online or considering giving to our fundraiser supporting the 2022 Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

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