Russ Garber

by Russ Garber

Principal, Director - Senior Living Studio

Memory Care Facilities: Design Trends for Dementia

  • MARCH 09, 2017
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A Growing Need for Memory Care Facilities

The number of Americans living with Alzheimer's disease is growing rapidly. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, someone in the United States will develop Alzheimer’s disease every 33 seconds. Barring an actual “cure” or at the very least a major medical breakthrough, there is no question that the need for dementia care support within the senior living continuum will remain relevant and necessary well into the future.

In 2016, the Alzheimer’s Association estimated 5.4 million Americans of all ages had the disease – nearly 95% of them are age 65 and older. This represents 1 out of every 9 persons over the age of 65. These figures do not include dementias caused by other diseases or conditions such as vascular dementia and Parkinson's disease that add an estimated 2.3 million Americans living with dementia. As the Baby Boomers begin to age, this number will continue to rise. In fact, experts predict by 2050 the number of people age 65 and older living with dementia will nearly triple.

With a rapidly growing senior population on the horizon and an inevitable increase in the number of Alzheimer’s disease cases and other forms of dementia in the coming years, the demand for physical environments that enhance the quality of life for individuals with cognitive impairment and memory loss will continue to increase.

Memory care facilities have been on the rise for almost a decade to accommodate this influx. As of the second quarter of 2016, there were about 65,594 memory care units in existing inventory, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (NIC). That’s an 8.3% increase on a year-over-year basis from 60,548 in 2015.

As this trend progresses, providers are opting to add a memory care component as part of their overall care continuum. Leveraging unique design trends for dementia, we can meet growing demand, as well as provide older Americans an environment to live in dignity and comfort. 

Design Trends for Dementia

Gone are the days of institutional care settings for those living with cognitive impairment. With increased market competition, innovative and unique design approaches are needed. There are several design trends focused on creating a holistically functioning space for residents with dementia.

1. Keep Spaces and Groups Small

People with dementia are challenged by large, unstructured spaces because of the large or unpredictable number of people sharing the space. By utilizing a household model, we reflect the elements of a house – such as resident rooms with bathrooms, a kitchen and dining area, and a living room or activity space. Keeping the group size small makes it easier to create homelike spaces compared to large institutional care settings. Small care homes with fewer residents have higher scores for resident comfort, normalness, choice, and overall wellbeing because residents get a chance to know each other better. Smaller units also allow residents to have a greater sense of control over their environment, may increase spatial orientation, and encourage verbal and social interaction.

2. Leverage Sensory Awareness

Designing around the senses is another way to incorporate forward-thinking design and a way to boost engagement for residents. Using color to differentiate the wall from the floor aids depth perception issues in older residents. Limiting abrupt transitions through slightly contrasting colors and avoiding busy patterns can also help put residents at ease. While most wayfinding is done through color, dementia patients respond best to objects. Using items like a clock or a piano at different intersecting points throughout the building can help residents make their way around. Artwork can also be used for a warm, human element and navigation. For example, a picture of food or the word "eat" can be strategically placed near the kitchen.

Recently, there’s been a shift towards tactile artwork, such as weavings or texture boards that residents can feel. As residents explore the space, it gives them something to stop and touch.

Using light to stimulate and ease circadian rhythms (e.g. dimming in the evening hours), limiting excess noise and confusion (e.g. music continually playing through the halls), and even the smell of cookies baking are all other ways we factor in the senses as we implement design trends for dementia in a patient-centered memory care facility.

3. Increase Engagement and Safety through Technology

Small technology innovations can go a long way. While technology will never replace human interaction, it can revolutionize memory care facilities and even potentially reduce operating costs. Technology can be used to enhance the lives of residents through engagement:

  • virtual reality devices can allow them to take part in their favorite hobbies (e.g. fishing or skiing) or relive their favorite memories,
  • electronic “memory boxes” can offer residents a chance to reminisce,
  • And tablets can help with wayfinding by displaying personal photos near the resident’s entryway to allow the resident to recognize that they are in their own room.

Safety and security is another way to utilize technology. Wander management solutions, where residents at risk of elopement are monitored using small, lightweight transmitters promote mobility and a home-like environment, while also allowing visitors and staff to easily flow through a community without barriers. Wireless nurse call solutions can be integrated for quick response and can be integrated with restraint-free fall monitoring for discreet, immediate notification.

Enhancing Quality Life

When implementing design trends for dementia it’s important to remember that every dementia resident has a different past and profile to be considered. Each resident will have a different journey. Typically, the disease progresses over 2 to 20 years, but the average length of stay in a memory care facility is 1.5-2.5 years. Through heightened awareness around this disease, the focus has shifted to utilizing design trends to provide thoughtful, patient-centered experiences. Because of this, we’re given the great opportunity to enhance and optimize the quality of life for patients with dementia.


Virtual Reality Photo credit: Boston Globe, "MIT startup lets seniors enter the world of virtual reality

Russ Garber

by Russ Garber

Principal, Director - Senior Living Studio

With three decades in architecture and design, and nearly fifteen years dedicated to Senior Living, Russ Garber has built a reputation, and made a much-deserved name for himself, as one of the most nationally recognized Senior Living design leaders in the country.