When Theresa Clement's father was moved to the memory care floor of an assisted living facility, the clever and colorful designer was not at all pleased with setting she found. "There are support groups for caregivers and family members of people with Alzheimer's, but no one was really talking about how to make these residences work better for the patients themselves," Clement says.
As a co-host of the popular radio program MyFixItUpLife with her husband Mark, Clement made it her mission to have more public discussions about designing for memory care. She earned her Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation, and has conducted a wealth of research and interviews. "People who are caring for someone with Alzheimer's at home don't have time to read all this information," she says. "We're compiling it into a platform called The Design Prescription and we're encouraging more discussion about the topic."
Clement says of the 5.3 million people in the U.S. that have Alzheimer's, 3.9 million of them live at home. "About 50% of those living at home have a household income of less than $50,000." Clement says. "When you're talking about memory care costing as much as $10,000 a month, it's just impossible for those families to have their loved one in a memory care facility." With the right design, Clement says families could outfit their own homes or even "care cottages" that would allow their loved ones to live semi-independently and in more comfort for a lot less expense.</p><p>Clement and other designers share lots of design ideas on Twitter using the handle @AlzDesign and hashtag #designallz, including Twitter chats on Sunday evenings. Here are four tips to study up on as you put your mind to memory care design:
Avoid Reflective Surfaces. Clement says that while mirrors are an obvious item to put in a bathroom, that's often a mistake when dealing with Alzheimer's patients. "People with forms of dementia can misunderstand what they're seeing in a mirror," she says. "Rather than recognizing their own reflection, they might think it's a long-lost loved one, or even an intruder, which can be scary." Likewise, glossy countertops and other reflective surfaces can cause light to bounce in ways that may be disruptive, shining light into their faces when they don’t expect it or can't interpret what's really happening.
Select Color Carefully. Clement says color is something our brains are able to hold onto even after names, faces, and words have begun to lose meaning. When choosing colors, she recommends selecting from the middle of a paint strip. Pale colors can become indistinguishable from each other, and dark colors resemble shadows that can scare people with Alzheimer's. "It's also helpful to use different colors for each room," she says. "Having the same color throughout can be confusing, but if the kitchen is blue, the living room is green, and the bathroom is yellow, it helps them learn to differentiate and recall the space they're in."
Patterns are Confusing. Avoiding pattern and sheen can be counter-intuitive to most designers, but Clement says solid colors and flat fields are an important part of Alzheimer's-related design. "Their visual perception is totally off, so patterns can feel like 3D," she says. "Your loved one might avoid sitting on a flower-patterned chair because the flowers seem real. Or the tile pattern on a floor can look like something has been dropped and needs to be picked up, or they might interact with the floor as if they're steps to be climbed, which can cause falls." Solid-color walls and continuous flooring throughout a home can help residents make more sense of their spaces.
Light Evenly. As mentioned earlier, shadows can frighten people suffering from dementia. Clement selects lighting that brightens spaces to help with visual acuity, and that is even throughout to avoid casting shadows. Also, avoid unnecessary objects that can be the cause of awkward shadows, such as large indoor plants or coat racks. Natural light is helpful, but Clement says many Alzheimer's sufferers get anxious in the evening as the sun sets and the light changes, so plan accordingly.
"It's easy for us to design spaces when we have every tool at our disposal to punctuate a space," Clement says, "but what we're learning with the Design Prescription is very different from anything you'll see on Houzz or in a Pottery Barn catalog. All that highly articulated texture and depth doesn’t work here.
"Alzheimer's is much more than just forgetting your relatives' names," she continues. "It's actually your brain slowly unravelling from that of a fully functioning adult into one that interacts with the world more like a toddler. And in this country where we spend so much time and money creating nurseries for our babies, we need to do the same for our parents and grandparents and make respectful considerations for the way they live."