THE BLOG

How to Create a Homelike Environment for Memory Care

02/10/2012 07:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2012

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about what makes a house feel like a home? For some, it is a big kitchen with lots of space for entertaining friends or a tranquil master suite where they can get away from all the cares of the day. For others, it may be their dog or cat who always greets them at the door. For family members who are helping a loved one with memory loss transition to an assisted living community or to any new living arrangement, it is important to recreate the elements that have always made those loved ones feel at home.

Here are five important ways to help a loved one with memory loss make a smooth transition to a new environment.

1.) Provide comfort and a feeling of familiarity, privacy and personal space

Design your loved one's suite or bedroom to reflect their personality. It should look and feel as much like their bedroom at home as possible. Personalizing everything from their most comfortable chair to their bed, blankets and soft pillows will make the room feel more familiar and help them to feel more secure.

You may even ask to have their bedroom painted in their favorite color. I recall a resident who wanted her walls painted a bright pink color. Even though at first her family didn't agree with the style choice, they honored her request and were glad they did. As it turned out, this resident was so proud of her suite that she often invited others to step inside her "favorite room in the house." She would show them her photos and reminisce about her wonderful life -- all important activities for those with memory loss.

At Sunrise, we have a country kitchen in our memory care neighborhoods where the residents and their visitors can enjoy coffee or tea, read the paper or clip coupons just as they did at home. The pleasant aromas of coffee brewing, popcorn popping and bread or cookies baking in the oven also add to the feeling of home.

2.) Connect the present with the past

As memory loss progresses, persons often tend to be living in the past more than the present. Be sure their new home includes personal items such as wedding pictures and photos of their children as well as their favorite paintings, books and other memorabilia from the past. These items not only reinforce their identity but also help them to feel more at home because they are recognizable and familiar.

One element we employ at Sunrise is to have a personalized shadow box outside each resident's room which contains photographs that depict their life story and further reinforces their identity, dignity and self-esteem.

3.) Promote independence and control

There are many ways to reinforce a sense of independence such as having the choice of when to go to bed and wake up, and having more than one choice of food at mealtime. It is also helpful to have drinks, light snacks and fresh fruit available in the kitchen.

As memory loss progresses, some individuals tend to look downward as they walk and might not recognize their room. To maintain their independence and assist them in finding their way, place something that is colorful and familiar such as a flower, bright flag, colorful photo or balloon on the wall or door frame closer to the floor where it will serve as a cue to get their attention.

Another way to give them a sense of independence is by promoting easy access to secure outdoor spaces where they can step outside and enjoy the outdoors with frequent supervision.

4.) Ensure safety and security

Many families make the decision to move their loved one into a "secured" memory care area when they become very forgetful or begin to wander. When evaluating the best place for your loved one, listen to the language used to describe the memory care area. When you hear phrases like a "locked unit," it may be an indication that creating a homelike environment is not valued.

Beyond the physical need for safety, a person also has an emotional need to "feel safe and secure," which is a universal basic human need. The best memory care programs have loving and caring staff that listen with empathy, validate their feelings and provide lots of smiles and hugs. These caregivers seem to have an innate way of knowing how to make each and every resident feel safe, secure and loved.

5.) Foster relationships

Even the most beautiful and well-designed memory care environments would be inadequate without compassionate caregivers. Residents with memory loss benefit from having consistent caregivers who know how to communicate effectively, understand their unique wishes and preferences and provide care according to their ever-changing needs.

A homelike environment should be person-centered with relationship-based care that provides residents opportunities to engage in life skills such as setting the tables, gardening, caring for pets, folding and putting away their laundry or leading a sing-a-long. All of these activities reinforce the residents' previous roles in life and give them a sense of meaning and purpose.

Involving family and friends is another key ingredient that makes a memory care community feel like home. Visits from grandchildren or ongoing intergenerational programs give residents an opportunity to nurture others and share their wisdom, further adding to the ambiance of home.

Perhaps the best depiction of memory care environments that truly feel like home is the one I often hear at Sunrise. Family members frequently say that when they take their loved one to their own home or out for dinner, their loved one will inevitably say at some point, "I'm ready to go home now."

For more by Rita Altman, R.N., click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.