Why Design for Cognitive Health?

September 11, 2023

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In light of the World Alzheimer’s Month 2023, the DesHCA project is taking a moment to talk about why designing our homes to support our cognitive ageing and decline as we age. A good design of the home can positively impact and influence a person’s use of space and experience at home – but is rarely talked about in the context of supporting an ageing population.

The Impact of Ageing on Cognitive Health

People often talk about getting older as if it’s an event that happens all at once, at some point in the dim and distant future. Many of us will know someone who’s proudly announced that they may be 75 (or 85, or 95!) but they’re not old yet – and while this is an approach that can make us smile at times, this kind of mentality can lead to issues if we’re trying to plan for the future, or if we decide we’d rather remain in our home as we age, rather than moving into residential care or supportive living.

People who want to avoid thinking about getting older might, for example, find it difficult to think about the different ways their home might help (or hinder) them if they develop a long-term health condition that causes sensory loss, such as a loss of vision, or makes it difficult to move around. They’ll almost certainly want to avoid any discussion of what they could do to make their home more supportive if they, or someone they live with had a stroke, started struggling with their memory, or developed dementia.

Yet as uncomfortable as these conversations might be – its vital that we talk about the life we’d like to live if we developed a health condition that changed the way we move through the world. It’s important to think about how we might manage if we started to struggle getting up and down stairs, seeing the TV or remembering where we kept our medication.

Benefits of Cognitive-Friendly Homes

Whilst we are most commonly aware of making adaptations and modifications to the home to support someone with mobility issues and decline of physical and motor skills, it might not be as common a knowledge that homes can similarly be adapted or designed to support cognitive decline and ageing.

We know, for example how important social interaction can be for older people, especially if they’re living with a health condition that can make it difficult to get out and about- yet we often forget about the importance of having the space to have someone around for a cup of tea or a meal when we’re planning for the future. Someone who wants to make their home as cognitively-friendly as possible might, therefore, think about:

  • Is there space for me to move around my kitchen easily with walker or a wheelchair? Is there still enough space if someone is sat at the table? (Mobility)
  • Do the colours of my dishes contrast well with my kitchen counter, or table, making them easy to see? (Sensory & Cognition)
  • Do I feel confident lifting my kettle when it’s full? (Mobility, Function)
  • Are the items I use regularly, such as teacups, teabags, cutlery, milk, easy to find? (Cognition).
  • How easy is it to quickly find my kitchen, or the bathroom, when all of my doors are closed? (Cognition, Function)

Asking these kinds of questions can help people to begin to pinpoint the different ways that they could use the principles of home design to support them as they age whether they experience issues with mobility, sensory loss, functional issues, or cognitive decline- or a mixture of all four.

Someone who has never visited your house before might find it easier if your garden or front door areas is easy to differentiate from those of your neighbours, but so too might someone with a visual impairment, who might find it easier to pick our a yellow front door than a house number, or someone living with dementia who needs the extra visual information to tell the difference between their home, and those of their neighbours.

Someone who is living with a condition that impacts how often they need to use the bathroom might find it more comfortable to visit the home of a friend whos’ bathroom is easy to find and close to the living room, for example, while someone living with dementia might find it easier to navigate if important rooms (like the bathroom) have some kind of sign on the door. In fact, having strategic signage around your home may make it easier for visitors and people living with dementia, who may become disorientated more easily.

Similarly, both people with low vision and people living with dementia may find it difficult to tell the whether the dark spot on the floor is a hole or part of pattern of the carpet, for example, and therefore benefit from plain flooring and kitchen counters. Curating the colours of the walls, doors, floors, furniture and other fixtures of the house to make sure they contrast with one another can also add extra information to help the brain process and understand it’s environment. Just as grab rails and stair lifts help with a decline in physical mobility, appropriate use of colour and contrast, labelling and signage can make it easier for someone to stay in the home of their choosing for longer- whether they’re living experiencing physical or cognitive change.

Design that Supports Cognition Supports Us All

It’s important to think about how we can use the design of our homes to support us as we age- especially as many of us aspire to live at home for longer. Thinking flexibly and creatively about the different ways in which design can be used to support a failing system (whether it’s related to your mobility, your senses, or your cognition) is essential if we’re to live well at home for longer.

The blogs written and hosted by the Designing Homes for Healthy Cognitive Ageing (DesHCA) project will explore the different ways that we can use design to support us as we age, whether we’re already living in our forever home, or thinking about building homes from scratch. We’ll use our research evidence, and those of others, to demonstrate how we can best design homes to cater to and respond to older people’s varying and changing needs, and highlight the value in choosing home designs that are flexible enough to support the way your lifestyle shifts throughout your entire life.

We believe that a well designed, supportive, joy-filled home is not a naive dream, but a real possibility for people in all walks of life- so lets think creatively about how we can design a supportive future, together!