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Design Considerations for Dementia

Updated: Mar 26

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there is an estimated five million adults over the age of 65 living with dementia. While providers commonly offer modifications and equipment to aid mobility issues, cognitive deficits are commonly overlooked. However, the principles of universal design can be applied to support families, caregivers, and persons with dementia.

While the symptoms of dementia may manifest differently from one person to the next, common dementia symptoms include:


· Impaired rational thinking and judgement

· Decreased situational awareness

· Short-term memory deficits

· Stronger reaction to lights and sounds

· Difficulty learning new information

· Anxiety and fear


The limitations brought about by the cognitive decline

are often significant, however it is still possible to take advantage of the retained abilities and insight.

Reinforce Familiarity. Current research shows that familiarity is the key goal in designing or retrofitting dementia-friendly environment. Supporting individual’s “lived experience” decreases frustration and leads to increased functional independence. A familiar object or color scheme is likely to trigger recollection of an associated activity or memory related to it (recognition of what is about to happen). Using a more traditional phone design may trigger the recollection of how to dial an important number; seeing familiar tablecloth pattern will bring about anticipation of mealtime

Provide Context. Easily interpreted environments is another consideration in universal design. Each living space should have a clear purpose and provide unobstructed visual access to key areas and important objects. Labeling, signage, painting and planting are the easiest and most inexpensive solutions. Contrasting door colors and baseboards help discriminate between various surfaces. Shrubs planted in the outdoor areas assist with orientation to the entrance point.

Reduce Overstimulation. Those with dementia may find themselves increasingly adversely sensitive to glare, shadows and bright or contrasting colors. To address this, living spaces can be made more dementia-friendly with matte surfaces, plain colors and continuous finishes. Providing multiple sources of artificial light ensures minimal shadows and aids with way finding at night. Natural light should be unobstructed to prevent or alleviate nocturnal restlessness and wandering.

Implement Technology. Smart technology is becoming increasingly popular and can be used by caregivers as well as people with dementia. There are systems that can notify caregivers of wandering behaviors while being non-restrictive and going largely unnoticed by dementia patients therefore reducing the risk of being intentionally removed or disables. Another example of technology use is to provide reminders and/or assist a person with dementia to orient themselves in an environment.

While it requires a good understanding of dementia symptoms and challenges, a dementia-friendly environment may result in increased independence and ability to engage in meaningful activities, decreased stress on caregivers, and improved social connectedness for families.

Photo by Evelyn Paris on Unsplash

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