Why design matters in memory care communities

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Milo Pinkerton
Milo Pinkerton

Imagine checking into a new hotel. On the way to the room, you take a wrong turn. Suddenly, you end up in the middle of the conference center and have no idea how to get out. How do you feel? Anxious? Lost? Alone?

Those are feelings that older adults living with Alzheimer's or dementia feel multiple times per day. Something as seemingly mundane as coming to the end of a dead-end hallway may cause decision paralysis, anxiety and frustration, because residents do not know where to go or how to get back to a space they remember.

This and many other everyday situations that cause stress can be alleviated by paying attention to design details in senior living communities. Here are four areas of community design that can help improve the quality of life for memory care residents.

1. Uncomplicated building design with touches of home

An uncomplicated, circular building design eliminates dead-end hallways and any anxiety they may cause while allowing residents to freely stroll throughout a safe, peaceful and familiar environment. This so-called “donut design” creates a never-ending corridor for residents to explore and is at its best when it surrounds an interior courtyard that allows memory care residents to safely access the outdoors.

Other best-practice memory care design elements:

  • Memory care suites with an open concept layout – one room for the bedroom and living area, plus a bathroom. This design helps residents know where they are at all times and helps prevent falls stemming from confusion.
  • A soothing, neutral color palette for memory care suites gives each resident the freedom to personalize their spaces.
  • Large windows that allow for maximum natural light. Natural light helps keep residents' circadian rhythms in place, and outdoor views can prompt positive sensory stimulations.
  • Bright, natural lighting. By age 75, most people require twice as much light as the normal recommended standard, and nearly four times as much as a 20-year-old, to see satisfactorily, according to the Dementia Services Development Center. Dark areas in hallways or rooms can appear ominous and confusing to the brain, causing anxiety or agitation.
  • Open communal spaces on each floor give residents an open, unintimidating venue to socialize.
  • Resting areas throughout hallways give residents comfortable places to sit if they get tired.
  • Offering at least one private dining room allows for intimate meals when family members visit.

If the memory care community is part of a senior living community with multiple levels of care, then it is important that the entire community is as compact as possible (rather than featuring long hallways to other parts of the community) to cut down on fatigue and anxiety. This is especially important if one spouse is residing in the assisted living portion of the community and one is in memory care.

Beyond an uncomplicated building design, the goal should be that residents feel at home the moment they move in. This is where attention to detail makes all the difference. Using warm, inviting and upscale finishes such as natural stone; high-quality wood such as oak; fireplaces; and lots of natural light help create a more comfortable atmosphere. Some memory care units include a memory box at the entrance to each suite, where residents and families can post photos and memorabilia that can spark conversation with other residents and caregivers and help share each resident's personal story.

2. Technology integration

Older adults entering senior living communities today have a much higher level of comfort with personal technologies — such as computers, tablets, smartphones and wearable devices — than yesterday's seniors, and that comfort level will only grow in the future. Senior living communities should be equipped to offer high-speed Wi-Fi access for residents and guests in all areas of the building, not just common areas.

Some communities are experimenting with providing residents with personal iPads that are pre-loaded with memory games and brain twisters, which also can be used to order meals or schedule life enrichment activities.

Technology integration also is vital when it comes to communicating with families. Caregivers need to have convenient access to computers to email with families, who expect more real-time communication about their family member's health status and activities. Video conferencing technology also is a priority, as some families may wish to communicate in that manner. This will become even more critical as telemedicine continues to grow and more health consults are done via video.

3. A personalized approach to caregiving and life enrichment

Caregivers are a vital part of residents' social engagement. Oftentimes, caregivers interact with memory care residents more than anyone else does. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, both resident care and the design of communities will need to become much more personalized for each individual's holistic needs – from life enrichment activities to culinary options.

Memory care units should be designed to allow for both private and collective spaces for a variety of non-medication therapies, such as art therapy, music therapy, culinary therapy, gardening and intergenerational activities. Each memory care resident should have a personalized care plan that is discussed and updated with the resident's family at least once each year.

4. Sensory stimulation

Best-in-class memory care units are now adding Snoezelen rooms that use light, sound and music, touch and scent to initiate sensory stimulations in the brain. For example, a Snoezelen room might have a lava lamp, scented candles, light patterns projected onto walls, music, squishy bean bags or fiber optic lights. These rooms have been shown to promote feelings of calm, especially in residents with late-stage dementia, those who wander and individuals who experience sundowning or agitation.

Another vital addition to today's memory care units are “dementia stations.” These areas allow residents to touch familiar objects in a safe environment. For example, a desk would have drawers that open but don't slam, a work bench might have a soft hammer but no nails and a fishing station may have a pole but no hooks. The idea is that these were once familiar activities for residents. By participating in them, residents use multiple senses that can stimulate the brain in different ways and cause deeper engagement with the world around them.

Putting it all together

Well-thought-out design is not just a “nice to have.” Design can affect the daily emotions of memory care residents. Design can be the reason a family chooses one community over another. The bottom line is that when senior living operators pay attention to design details, just as they would when designing their own homes, the result is safer and more comfortable environments for memory care residents.

Milo Pinkerton is the founder of Heritage Senior Living, the largest senior living provider based in Wisconsin. An architect by trade, he has spent his career creating unique designs for residential properties throughout the Midwest. After assisting his parents in their own search for a senior living community, Pinkerton saw the need for high-quality senior housing with the comforts and convenience of home. Heritage Senior Living now has 14 properties that care for more than 2,000 Wisconsin seniors. Since its founding in 2000, Heritage has worked with Dimension IV Architects to create warm, home-like communities for today's seniors.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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