The importance of communal areas

Some of us are more sociable than others.
Some of us are used to living with others.
Some of us live on our own.

It must nevertheless be true of all of us that we need other people to make us feel the person we are. We need to feel loved. We need to feel that other people know us and care about us. We need recognition for the person we are; warts and all. Very few people willingly live without ever seeing anyone else.

It is a fact of life that when we can no longer cope at home, we move into some sort of shared accommodation. It could be flats with support or a care home. There will be other people about and some of our time will inevitably be spent with others. This can take some adjustment as we establish ourselves in a very different place and routine.

People with dementia do not always find adjustment easy. They can forget why they have moved and be forever yearning for somewhere more familiar. They can fail to learn the layout of a new place and how to find certain rooms. They often struggle to work it out unless it resonates with something from their past or it is such a simple design and so well signposted that it is easy to find your way.

It is all a lot easier if the place in some way resembles somewhere familiar. If the furniture and fittings are familiar (which usually means that they give a sense of the time we were children and young adults because this is often the most vivid time). It is also helpful if the design compensates for visual and hearing problems as well.

The challenges for those responsible for designing the interiors of communal areas are many:

  • People have very different degrees of impairment. The only way of dealing with this is to get it right for the most impaired and it will be right for everyone. Thus you put in lots of light, lots of contrast, as quiet as possible and so on.
  • People have very different interests so a lounge/sitting room should make it possible to do different things. Some people like sitting round the fireplace passing the time of day, others like to sit and read, some like to watch the TV and so on. If people with dementia are going to feel confident in any space it has to tell them what is expected of them.
  • People have very different needs and traditions around meal times. Some people are used to formal dining; others prefer a kitchen table type environment. Some people like to eat on their own; others appreciate company if only to remind them how to eat. Some like to think they are in a canteen, others a restaurant and others a family. Everybody needs light and good contrast to see the cups, plates etc. and the food. Everybody needs quiet and few distractions in order to concentrate.

A communal setting will never be as familiar as home but there is a lot we can do to make it easy to understand and to make it possible for people with dementia to feel safe and comfortable.