Dementia Centred

By DSDC Guest

December 20th, 2019

Bringing Dementia Friendly Design to Beamish Museum

A 1940s style farm cottage, ‘Orchard Cottage’, currently provides a unique space at Beamish Museum, an open air museum in County Durham, for a wide range of group activities with older people, people living with dementia and other long term health conditions. As the Museum’s Health & Wellbeing Team prepares to re-locate to a new building in its 1950s town, this is an exciting opportunity to create an environment which combines best practice for dementia friendly design, while also keeping the historical integrity of the building and using the museum’s original collections.  

Over the next few years a new 1950s town will be emerging at Beamish Museum; constructing replicas and original buildings from across the North East.  As part of this exciting project the Health & Wellbeing Team will be re-locating to a new space; a row of Aged Miner’s Homes copied from ones in South Shields, with the space of two houses knocked into make one large bungalow.  Although Orchard Cottage is cosy, authentic in style and has been enjoyed by many people over the years, it is also an original building and was not built or designed with access needs in mind.  Although some short term adaptations have been made, a new space, designed with dementia friendly design at the forefront is essential.


I had attended the one day ‘Introduction to Design’ workshop in 2015.  This was really useful in helping with some initial design ideas at the preliminary stage of planning for the architects.  I was also able to share my new knowledge with the rest of the Building & Design Team so that they could include some of the core principles, where possible, into all buildings.  This could be something as simple as choosing a plain formica kitchen worktop over a highly patterned one, or having more ceiling lights to ensure constant and bright light levels.

This year it was finally time for us to start with the detailed design and design brief in collaboration with the Building and Design Team. I attended DSDC’s two day ‘Intersection of Dementia and Design’ workshop which was absolutely invaluable.  I felt like I had a good amount of knowledge already but this course went into so much more detail and covered every aspect of designing accessible spaces, both inside and outside, and I came back full of new ideas and confidence in my knowledge.  One of the first things I did was to create two advisory groups: one made up of participants from some of our groups who are living with dementia, or other physical or cognitive impairments, and their families and carers, and another one made up of representatives from organisations who support and care for people living with these impairments.  These two groups are both involved in designing the interior and exterior space using their knowledge and experiences of living with impairments and, for some of them, also of experiencing the 1950s first-hand. They will meet up eventually too, when we find a space big enough for everyone!

Of course the extra ‘challenge’ is to then also think about how to combine this with authentic fashions, furniture and colour schemes of the 1950s.  Scouring original magazines, photographs, films and adverts from the 1950s I was reassured that not everything was highly patterned, floral and a vast mix of colours, The interior design of our space will still be able to reflect the popular styles and colour schemes of the 1950s but with some subtle adaptations. For example through using matt paint on the walls in plain pastel colours, a plain contrasting lino on the floor and woodwork and skirting boards painted to contrast both.  We can still have some patterned soft furnishings, such as cushions, but one side will be plain so it’s easily turned over if necessary.  We can still use 1950s style lamp and ceiling light shades but we need to ensure they are ones in a light colour and with clear glass to allow as much light as possible, and we can use brighter bulbs and more fittings than would be originally to ensure there is the option to have optimum light levels.  Where possible we will use the museum’s collections for the fit out of the house. 


(Photos from Beamish Museum's archive) 

An area where we felt we weren’t able to adapt any collections adequately was seating.  But through approaching a companies who make furniture for care homes and hospitals we were able to work collaboratively with them to design dining and living room seating that still looked authentic for 1950s, but while also being robust, safe and accessible.   

As we move into 2020 the foundation stones will be laid and it will be an exciting year to start making decisions on things like colour schemes and decor and to start sourcing some of the furniture, fixtures and fittings. My notes from the Intersections of Dementia and Design workshop are permanently on my desk now and I refer to them all the time when we’re working on the design for the house.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how it starts to take shape this year.

~ Michelle Kindleysides


Categories: Dementia Design