Bette McNee and Cindy Shemansky headshots
Bette McNee, left, and Cindy Shemansky

An Alzheimer’s disease or dementia diagnosis can be a life-altering piece of news and often elicits several emotions from the person with the disease as well as his or her loved ones. Transitioning to a memory care community or unit can promote a better quality of life but still can be an abrupt and anxiety-inducing time for everyone involved.

With creative design and intentional construction, that doesn’t have to be the case however. Interactive memory care models prioritize dignity and purpose for the resident but also can help mitigate risks for employees, creating a safer environment for everyone.

As a former nurse turned senior clinical risk management consultant and a memory care center administrator, we’ve seen the impact that community or unit layout and design can have on residents. Senior living communities and especially nursing homes no longer are the clinical, drab facilities of the past. They are vibrant, caring spaces where residents should be proud to live, and loved ones should be excited to visit. A few thoughtful, cost-effective improvements can go a long way to transforming a memory care community or unit — and there are examples demonstrating their transformative power.   

For example, unique life-skill stations designed throughout a 10,000-square-foot “memory support neighborhood” are empowering residents to keep their minds active at the Cindy Springs memory care neighborhood at Masonic Village of Burlington, a life plan community in New Jersey. In this type of model, designers created life and destination stations imitating aspects of home and community to create meaningful engagement for residents, which has helped them retain their skills and talents. Within a short walk down the neighborhood hallway, residents can choose between making a “trip” to the post office to run errands, folding laundry, picking flowers or building with safety tools at a workshop. Those seemingly mundane activities go a long way in making residents feel connected to their authentic selves, even if they aren’t able to do them as independently as they once could.

Visual-spatial and tactile design elements provide interactive environments, such as an office space or a nursery, that remind residents of their past. This allows families the opportunity to interact with their loved one in a comfortable, casual setting while sharing a task. The stations also help foster a sense of community with other residents, by creating areas to interact with each other. The goal is to elicit long-term memories, with each station purposefully designed to spark reflection, recreate moments of happiness and help caregivers learn more about each resident.

It also protects the caregiving team by managing the conditions in which residents inadvertently may put themselves or others at risk. If a resident begins to behave in a certain manner, he or she can quickly, safely and easily be guided to another station, away from other residents, so they can maintain brain stimulation while having the space needed to ground themselves and calm down.

Boredom and loneliness also can trigger certain behaviors, but the variety of the life-skill stations ensures that there always are multiple areas and activities to remain engaged throughout the day. This ultimately reduces the risk of agitation, falls, combativeness and elopement, which promotes a safer working environment for the caregiving team — always a key priority for any memory care center administrator.

The neighborhood of 14 rooms is intentionally small at the moment, but it offers a glimpse into the future of memory care communities and units. At Cindy Springs, we’ve noticed benefits to the resident experience and how the intentional design supports the ability for caregivers to provide quality care while protecting their safety as well.

Centering dignity — for everyone — doesn’t need to require a massive facility overhaul or facelift. It comes down to looking for attainable areas of improvement that make an impact — one life-skill station at a time.

Bette M. McNee, BSN, RN, NHA, is a senior clinical risk management consultant at Graham Company.

Cindy Shemansky is assistant executive director and administrator of Masonic Village at Burlington.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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