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Rita Altman, R.N.

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How to Design Rooms for Those With Memory Loss

Posted: 02/28/11 05:59 PM ET

Think about how frustrating it is to walk into a dark room and have no idea where the light switch is located. It's even more frustrating to think you know where the light switch is, but are still not able to find it. These feelings are experienced daily by millions of people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of memory loss. It is a constant battle with daily tasks that begins to chip away at their self-esteem and may lead to feelings of anger and exasperation.

As caretakers, we have an opportunity to design environments for seniors with memory loss that help maintain their sense of control and personal dignity. In order to promote all of the functional skills and abilities that remain, we must think about what the senior with memory loss can still do, rather than what they can no longer do, and then design their environment in a way that supports their independence. Many daily routines and activities rely on the individual's implicit memory -- the memory that was learned and encoded in the brain without conscious thought, such as brushing your teeth. This type of memory continues long after the signs of memory loss begin. By tapping into their implicit memory and creating an environment in which they can do as much for themselves as possible, we support their sense of control and security.

Here are several design elements that can be incorporated into any space to promote familiarity and security for seniors with Alzheimer's disease or memory loss. They may be applied in their own homes, the home of a loved one or in a memory care community:

Create a Personalized Environment. A space that feels like "home" and is personalized with photos, mementos and other familiar items will help your loved one keep their sense of identity and belonging. Use a former hobby or passion as the theme for the room and decorate in your loved one's favorite colors.

Use Proper Lighting . Natural light not only helps for vision and well-being, but also helps keep sleep cycles intact. Install motion sensor lights in bedrooms or bathrooms to promote independence and safety.

Contrast Colors. Color contrasts between furniture, fixtures, walls and floors help seniors differentiate between different surfaces in order to safely navigate their home. For instance, contrast bed linens and drapes with walls and flooring. In the bathroom, use colored towels that contrast with the bathroom walls.

Reconfigure Furniture. Couches and chairs should be soft and comfortable with solid colors. They should have fabrics that consider continence issues and are easy to clean. Furniture should also be positioned to encourage engagement with others or face outdoors. Avoid simply positioning furniture in front of a television.

Avoid Busy Patterns. Rugs and furniture should not be highly patterned or have strongly contrasting colors because some with memory loss have trouble with spatial awareness and can perceive darkly contrasting patterns as holes or perceive flecks of color as spots that need to be removed.

Install Drapes and Carpet. Hardwood floors should be covered with area rugs and windows should be draped in order to help muffle extraneous noises that may be disorienting for those with memory loss.

Avoid Scatter Rugs. Scatter rugs should be kept at a minimum because they can cause confusion and pose a risk for tripping. If necessary, they should always be non-slip.

Consider Shadow Boxes as Art . Shadow boxes are a great way to help personalize a space and spark reminiscent conversations. They can be hung outside the door to give those with memory loss a visual cue to help them recognize their room.

Use Colored Dinnerware. Fiestaware is a great brand to use because it has bright, solid color with no distracting patterns. A bright yellow color contrasts well with most foods which makes it easier for those with memory loss to distinguish where food ends and the dish begins. Saucers should also be used with cups, as their wide lips can hold food for seniors who are prone to wandering while they eat or drink.

Stage a "Snoezelen" Experience. Create a personalized multi-sensory experience that stimulates a sense of peacefulness, calmness and well-being. "Snoezelen" comes from the Dutch words for "explore" and "doze," and this approach includes soft lighting, aroma therapy, soft fabrics, stuffed animals and calming visual displays such as lights, images and bubbles.

These environmental considerations may not slow the progression of dementia or Alzheimer's disease, but they may help seniors with memory loss preserve their sense of self and purpose in life. Ensuring loved ones live in a home in which they feel comfortable and secure is an invaluable gift, and one that will allow you to enjoy many pleasant moments together.

 

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