How Subtle, Clever Architectural Decisions can Help People Living with Dementia

Sit down, close your eyes, and try to remember how you got to where you are.

How easy is it for your to visualize the path you took today? How did you remember where to go? Maybe you know to always turn at an important landmark -- the tree your mom planted, for example. Maybe there was a sign telling you the right direction.

For people living with dementia, these navigational clues can be hard to read.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, about 5 million Americans live with some form of dementia. Dementia isn't a single disease -- rather, it's a broad category of cognitive and neurological symptoms. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, but there are many others, including strokes or Parkinson's disease.

Dementia can interfere with many of the brain's mental processes, including spatial memory -- the part of the brain that deals with navigation. This is why many people living with dementia may sometimes find it hard to get around, even in familiar places.

Getting lost can be especially dangerous for people who live with advanced forms of dementia -- it can mean forgetting how to get home and being exposed to the cold or rain or running into dangerous situations like wandering across a highway.

A possible solution for this problem lies in the designs of the very buildings we live in.

Woodside Place is an assisted-living community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that was built by Presbyterian SeniorCare in 1991.

Though not as common today, in the 1980s, many facilities used physical or chemical restraints to prevent their residents from moving around.

Woodside, on the other hand, was specifically built and decorated to accommodate the natural wandering tendencies of people living with dementia.

Clever design decisions -- like the use of color -- help reinforce and strengthen the residents' spatial memory.

Many care spaces are designed like hospitals, fairly sterile and visually repetitive, white hallway after white hallway. By making the space more colorful, Woodside provides a quick intuitive reminder for residents to identify where they are.

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