The buildings and streets around us shape how we interact with the environment. How can we design cities that are equitable and accessible for people living with dementia?
The physical structures in which we live, work, and play constitute the built environment around us. Since we constantly interact with the built environment, architects must consider different needs and abilities in their designs to enable equitable access. This is called universal design, and it can be seen all around us.
Take, for example, a crosswalk. In the image below, the sidewalk slopes down to provide wheelchair access. There are also tactile bumps to signify a crossing for people using a long cane. The walking person signal provides clear instructions for those who cannot hear the traffic slowing. All these features represent design decisions made to increase the usability of the crosswalk.
Not Yet Universal
While designers have tried to create built environments that are universally accessible, they rarely consult people with lived experience of dementia in the design process. The result is cities and spaces that are confusing and inaccessible to those with dementia[1,3–5].
The City of Vancouver exemplifies this disconnect in what they specify as “accessible street design”. Despite claiming to use the principles of universal design, the city’s specifications mainly focus on physical disabilities and neglect considerations for dementia. Further, dementia research tends to focus on social interactions and personal connections. Designers are simply unaware of the needs of those living with dementia[4,7,8].
Work in the field of Environmental Gerontology – which considers the relationship between the environment, health, and aging – has made the issue clear: making the built environment more accessible can improve quality of life for people with dementia. How do we adapt our environments to better suit their needs?
Limited Work in Limited Spaces
To date, only a few small-scale research trials included people with dementia in the design process. One example is the Lepine-Versailles Garden in France, which took input from people living with dementia and their care partners. Dementia-specific features include clearly marked boundaries to the garden, and small enclosed spaces that help relieve anxiety and provide safety. These small spaces can provide a place for close, quiet social interactions, which become more relevant as dementia progresses and language skills diminish.
Environmental interventions are also present in the psychogeriatric environment. One hospital in the Netherlands built custom handrails to help people living with dementia navigate more easily. For example, they made one handrail of wood and played bird noises to help residents find the garden.
Handrail with a bird located near the garden. Nearby speakers played bird chirping sounds. Reproduced from Ludden et al. (2019).
However, these findings are very limited – they apply to specific environments that are not representative of most people’s experiences with dementia. A majority of people with dementia live in their home, and they routinely navigate their environment by taking walks on their own[3,5]. Increasingly, health research has emphasized the idea of ‘aging in place,’ suggesting that the number of people living at home with dementia will increase.
Design Principles for Dementia
So, what should dementia friendly environments actually look like? Mitchell and Burton studied the design principles that make environments accessible[3,5]. Based on these design principles, they developed design strategies to help people living with dementia flourish in the built environment. These include:
- Small blocks laid out in an irregular grid with minimal crossroads and gently winding streets: this layout emphasises legibility, allowing people to identify where they need to go and avoid complicated crossroads.
- Varied urban form and architecture, with landmarks and visual cues: this makes different parts of a neighbourhood more distinct from each other, which can help with wayfinding and orienting.
- Mixed use buildings, including plenty of local services: this ensures people do not have to travel too far from their homes to access essential services (e.g., grocery store) and enables access without the need for driving or transiting.
These recommendations highlight the specific needs of people living with dementia that designers often overlook. For example, while cities designed on a grid are easy to navigate for most people, these grids are often repetitive and rely on numbered streets signs to navigate, making this design inaccessible to those with dementia.
From Ideas to Implementation: An Ethical Imperative
In summary, designers should prioritize the long-overlooked needs of people with dementia in their designs. Researchers have developed detailed recommendations for how to include dementia in universal design. Implementation is now the key.
With the global population aging, the number of people living with dementia is increasing. The focus on aging in place also means that many people will remain in their homes for longer and interact with the public environment (as opposed to specific dementia care facilities). It is therefore an ethical imperative that architects, city planners, and all other groups involved in the process of designing our built environment begin to consider the needs of people living with dementia.
Consulting people living with dementia during the design process is an opportunity to preserve their autonomy and dignity. This will require an overhaul of how we think about our built environment, and a shift towards truly universal design.
- Sturge, J., Nordin, S., Sussana Patil, D., Jones, A., Légaré, F., Elf, M., & Meijering, L. (2021). Features of the social and built environment that contribute to the well-being of people with dementia who live at home: A scoping review. Health & Place, 67, 102483. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2020.102483
- Story, M. F. (1998). Maximizing Usability: The Principles of Universal Design. Assistive Technology, 10(1), 4–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/10400435.1998.10131955
- Mitchell, L., & Burton, E. (2010). Designing Dementia‐Friendly Neighbourhoods: Helping People with Dementia to Get Out and About. Journal of Integrated Care, 18(6), 11–18. https://doi.org/10.5042/jic.2010.0647
- Ludden, G. D. S., van Rompay, T. J. L., Niedderer, K., & Tournier, I. (2019). Environmental design for dementia care—Towards more meaningful experiences through design. Maturitas, 128, 10–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2019.06.011
- Mitchell, L., & Burton, E. (2006). Neighbourhoods for life: Designing dementia‐friendly outdoor environments. Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, 7(1), 26–33. https://doi.org/10.1108/14717794200600005
- Accessible Street Design. (n.d.). The City of Vancouver Engineering Services. Retrieved January 1, 2023, from https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/accessiblestreetdesign.pdf
- Chrysikou, E., Tziraki, C., & Buhalis, D. (2018). Architectural hybrids for living across the lifespan: Lessons from dementia. The Service Industries Journal, 38(1–2), 4–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/02642069.2017.1365138
- Van Steenwinkel, I., Van Audenhove, C., & Heylighen, A. (2019). Offering architects insights into experiences of living with dementia: A case study on orientation in space, time, and identity. Dementia, 18(2), 742–756. https://doi.org/10.1177/1471301217692905
- Charras, K., Bébin, C., Laulier, V., Mabire, J.-B., & Aquino, J.-P. (2020). Designing dementia-friendly gardens: A workshop for landscape architects: Innovative Practice. Dementia, 19(7), 2504–2512. https://doi.org/10.1177/1471301218808609
Grayden Zaleski is a Directed Studies Student under the supervision of Dr. Julie Robillard in the NEST Lab. He is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in Behavioural Neuroscience and a Computer Science minor. His research interests include human computer interaction, accessible technology, and the use of technology in healthcare to improve patient experience. He is currently working to engage healthcare providers and community members through an innovative online ‘Tweet Chat’! Additionally, he is contributing to the first empirical characterization of social media use in dementia research, which seeks to assess the benefits and harms of social media usage for research participation. In his spare time, you can find Grayden exploring Vancouver and playing simulation games.