When 77-year-old Anne (pseudonym) was diagnosed with Dementia, her family wanted to keep her engaged in art. After all, she was a successful abstract artist for decades, so why stop now?
Her family expected her to use the art studio in her condo–which was full of all sorts of supplies–like she previously did, but that didn’t happen.
“The family didn’t understand how they needed to help with cueing and getting [Anne] engaged,” says Jeannine Forrest, Dementia care coach and advisory council member for Dementia Society of America®. “We coached the family about how to bring out just a few art supplies at a time,” among other tips.
Anne’s husband, who is also her caregiver, turned on her favorite opera music in the background and created art with her. Once a solo activity, it soon became something they enjoyed together.
“What was wonderful was that they both had meaningful and positive [experiences] within this environment,” says Forrest. “Her husband’s face just lit up being able to bring out that light in her that used to make her shine.”
A positive atmosphere is essential for everyone, especially individuals living with Dementia. It’s a space where people “feel empowered, respected, and as if they have choice and purpose,” explains Forrest.
Here are 4 ways to create a positive environment for people living with Dementia:
1. Think beyond the physical space.
When Forrest thinks of the environment, she considers two areas: inner and outer rings. The inner ring, which is the people, is just as important as the outer ring, the physical space. The people include whoever is caring for and/or interacting with a person living with Dementia. Those individuals should be well informed that the person’s brain is changing, says Forrest. It’s more than memory loss. Some of the 22 common signs and symptoms include poor judgment, difficulty with senses, heightened anxiety, and more. With that information in mind, individuals should have a willingness to learn how to adapt to those changes and communicate in different ways. For example, a person should always aim to use language that is empowering and uplifting, not stigmatizing.
2. Create safe, organized rooms.
Regardless of where a person living with Dementia is living–at home, a care facility, or elsewhere–it’s important to prioritize safety and organization. Ensuring safety for everyone is paramount. This involves removing potential fall risks, such as throw rugs or cords. Organization is key too. Avoid cluttering the space with piles of books and other objects. When the space is too busy, it can be overstimulating and distracting, especially for someone whose brain is changing.
3. Add wayfinding signs.
One easy way to give choice and dignity to people living with Dementia is through wayfinding signs. It’s common for individuals with Dementia to get lost in familiar places. Or perhaps they’re in a new place, and all the doors look the same. That’s when physical signs can be incredibly helpful. Wayfinding signs have “not only the word but a picture of the toilet and the washroom [for example], so that the person who is living has Dementia can walk by and identify where they are,” says Forrest.
4. Incorporate homelike objects.
The main spaces where a person living with Dementia spends most of their time should be cozy and homelike. While this comes more naturally in a person’s home, it’s certainly possible to achieve in a care community. Forrest suggests adding familiar objects, such as photos and other mementos, that bring the person joy and comfort. While this is important, Forrest emphasizes that a beautiful, high-end environment will not make up for a poor inner ring.
“It’s more than the physical space. That’s part of it, but that’s not what makes the difference in terms of quality time and quality of life,” says Forrest. “It is the people who interact in that space, that inner ring, that makes all the difference in the world.”
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