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Designing for Dementia

In this article, GT3 Architects’ Senior Architect and Research & Development Lead, Judith Atkinson, takes a closer look at designing for dementia, how architects can raise awareness, why it should be considered in the early stages of a project, and offers some design features that can help to make a dementia-friendly environment.

GT3 Architects

Research shows that there are more than 944,000 people in the UK living with dementia, with one in 11 people over the age of 65 with the condition. Despite these large numbers, many people feel there is still a significant lack of inclusivity in many public buildings, and much work needs to be done on understanding and raising awareness of the condition.

What inclusive design means at GT3 Architects

Part of our methodology and our ‘people architecture’ ethos is to fully understand who we are designing for, and to really consider how those people use and move through our spaces. We believe that designing with the different needs of different types of user groups makes our designs better and our buildings more enjoyable places to be. Inclusive design for us is not a buzzword or an afterthought; it is a fundamental part of our design process.

GT3 is developing a series of inclusive design guidance pieces, with each research project focusing on a different demographic of public and leisure building users. These user groups have been suggested and driven by our team (usually because of personal connections or experiences) and currently include designing for caregivers of young children, designing for individuals with autism and/or learning difficulties, designing for blind people and designing for the hearing impaired. Although detailed design guidance does exist within the industry for these groups, as designers and consultation specialists, we find it to be severely lacking in the sport and leisure sector, particularly for wet leisure (swimming pools and changing areas). Although our guidance can be applied across any sector, the expertise of our team and the breadth of our leisure portfolio has naturally focused our attention on wellness and fitness spaces. It’s also been driven by demand – on nearly every project, we speak to users who struggle to use and enjoy these spaces as they were intended; they are noisy, bright, have changes in temperature and environments, and usually involve the user requiring changing facilities.

Senior Interior Architectural Designer Charlotte Stone and Architect Holly Forsyth both have experience of caring for someone with dementia and were passionate about driving this project forward. They interviewed carers of people living with dementia from various settings, as well as hosting a workshop with a local dementia group, visiting a dementia-focused care home and interviewing specialist consultants. The resulting guidance is now used to educate all at GT3 when designing and to provide a checklist of best practice design moves.

Understanding the impact of design on those with dementia

Dementia is not a disease itself. The word ‘dementia’ is an umbrella term for symptoms such as memory loss, confusion and personality change. Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common but other causes include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia. It is important to understand the fundamental challenges people with dementia and their carers face, before looking for solutions and improvements. People living with dementia, as well as their family and carers, have unrivalled expertise and experience of dementia. This knowledge must be respected and used in partnership with design professionals to create more inclusive architectural spaces.

Barriers to accessibility

An important focus group was the Morpeth Dementia Group – a collection of community members from the North East, each with first-hand experience of living with, or caring for, people with dementia. 100% of the attendees had never attended a leisure centre with someone with dementia – it was perceived as simply too difficult. It is this social belief that buildings are mostly unsuitable for people with dementia that needs to be challenged and culturally changed, so that everyone can feel confident accessing and enjoying our public amenities. This can only be done through thoughtful and considered designs that are inclusive of a variety of needs, and for this to become not just best practice but the standard for all buildings.

Some of the features that make a dementia-friendly environment

Designing with dementia in mind requires a sensitive, considered approach. Whilst there are many commonalities in the challenges faced by those living with dementia, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. What helps one person, may distress or confuse another. It is important to discuss this approach with the client at the early stages of the project, so the full team can understand, support and justify bespoke design solutions.

Considering the following design principles can help deliver a more inclusive environment:

The senses – it is common for people living with dementia to experience difficulty with their sight, which can cause them to misinterpret their surroundings. Clear wayfinding should be a priority, using icons instead of words where possible in case recognising letters has become difficult. It’s also helpful to consider ways to allow people to put their other senses into action so we often encourage things like an open-plan cafe so individuals can use their sense of smell.

Personal precedents – creating a sense of nostalgia or remembrance through the use of local historical photographs and colourful artwork can act as a reminder of the past, particularly about the building they are in or the local area. Small prompts like this can be very helpful in the recollection of past memories they may have struggled to remember otherwise.

Comfort precedents – work to create a state of physical ease, wellbeing and a feeling of independence. Examples include comfortable supportive furniture, private areas and natural lighting.

Practical precedents – this includes design aspects that will physically affect those with dementia, such as ramps, adaptable furniture, specific consideration of colour and contrast so that differentiation between objects can be easily seen.

Biophilic design – a focus on a human’s innate attraction to nature. Including things like indoor greenery and external views of nature has been proven to be calming and restorative.

How do we move forward?

As a nation, we are well versed in the benefits of regular exercise and activities, not just physically, but mentally too. Regular cardiovascular activity can help reduce the overall risk of dementia, whilst regular exercise of all kinds can help to combat other Alzheimer’s disease risk factors, such as depression and obesity. As we discuss ageing populations, cost-of-living crises and an ever-rising demand for public health services, it is imperative that designers are aware of the implications of this condition. It is our hope that by taking a closer look at specific user-group requirements in a leisure setting, we can help make a real difference to local communities across the globe.

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