Our brain is amazing. Each day as we move through the world our brain guides our movement, our cognitive actions, and our understanding of the environment around us. It filters out the unneeded noise, clutter and other sensory information that prevents us from doing the things that help us to get our needs met. Our brain helps us to process what is happening around us in manageable chunks, it keeps us safe, and helps us to enjoy ourselves.
Unfortunately damage to the brain caused by neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, and many, many others can reduce the brain's ability to filter out unneeded information and retain the bits that help us to go about our day. But is it possible to adapt our environments in such a way that the sensory information that is present supports understanding of the environment rather than inhibiting it? Yes, it is possible, but it requires us to have an understanding of dementia, of how the brain works, and about how design and décor of space supports or limits someone with cognitive impairment.
Research has shown us that getting the environment right can have important benefits to the individual living with dementia. There is an evidence base that shows that environments that have been adapted for supporting cognition can reduce the likelihood of falls, agitation, distressed behaviour, the use of anti-psychotic medication and support wayfinding, activity, nutritional intake, sleeping patterns, communication, quality of life, independence and well-being*. While there is still room for more evidence supporting environmental adaptation, the evidence we have has shown us that when we adapt the environment to support cognitive impairment, and when those who work within such an environment practice person centred support, it enables people with dementia to live and function better.
Often at the Dementia Centre when we talk about the principles of dementia friendly design it is assumed we are talking only about the architectural layout of a building, and that if someone is not creating a new space, then the principles do not have application for them. Unfortunately, most of us are not in a position to build a new public space, care service, or home. But these principles can be applied to existing spaces as well. They inform how we adapt our current environment to better support the brain, and therefore better support the individual. They can guide us in times of renovation, refurbishment and reorganisation to consider how the choices we make can support an individual to maintain their independence, their safety, their dignity, and their well-being.
If you would like to learn more about how to support individuals with dementia through environmental adaptation then join us for The Intersection of Design + Dementia, a two day course where you can tailor your learning to the topics that suit your needs. Join in the conversation about how environments can support individuals to live well with dementia.
*Based on research studies reviewed in Bowes, A. [et al.] (2016) Designing environments for people with dementia: a structured literature review. British journal of visual impairment 34(3)