How To Use Design to Create Happier Realities for Residents

We’ve had a number of residents over the years who believe that they are “on a cruise ship” when they are actually living in a dementia care community. When you think about it, it really isn’t that surprising: care communities are often made up of long, thin hallways with windows and doors, much like a ship. Meals and activities are provided daily, much like they would be on a cruise.

It’s not that residents have always come up to me and said, “I’m on a cruise ship!” but rather that I’ve gathered the information from watching and listening. I once had a resident who claimed to have vertigo because she “didn’t have her sea legs just yet.” I had a family member of a person living with dementia say to me recently, “My dad often thinks he’s out on a cruise boat because of the regular meals the community provides.”

We make our reality based on what we see around us, so it’s no wonder that the information residents living with dementia receive turns into, “I’m on a cruise.”

This is of particular importance to note when we are building care communities for people with dementia. What we create (colors, signage, art, flooring, etc.) makes an impact on what people see and how they feel. I imagine that the feeling of being on a cruise vacation is a nice one for most people. It’s possible that we can impact someone’s world in a positive or negative fashion based on the clues we provide about that world.

A great example is one that we found in the UK at a place called The Gateway Care Home. This care community hosts the world’s first virtual train, where residents can sit inside and take a train ride—without going anywhere at all.

Views move by the train car’s window, and train sounds can be heard from inside the “cars.” It’s a wonderfully unique experience, and I am sure that for the people living there, it is quite real. I have to imagine, too, having had many residents “want to go home,” the train is a great way to make them feel productive on that journey.

So how do we take elements of a cruise ship or train ride that temporarily transport residents to a more joyful reality and implement them in communities? Life skill stations are always an impactful, cost effective way to do this. We’ve seen communities transform their cafe/bistro area into a replica of a local ice cream shop or diner that everyone is familiar with and can reiminisce about the happy times they had there. The furniture was already in place, they just had to include signage and some accessories to make it feel more authentic. Amanda is currently working with a client to create a “Fishing Lodge.” Residents can relax by a (faux) fireplace in barnwood lounge chairs, look at vintage fishing pictures hanging on the walls, and flip through fishing magazines while they remember the ‘one that got away’ or their first big catch.

On a simpler scale, you can get a small suitcase and put road maps, postcards, guidebooks, and a travel journal in it to set on an end table or bookcase. Ask residents ‘Where should we take a trip to?’ and go through the contents. You can ask questions about where they’ve traveled before, where was their favorite place to go, or where they always wished they could go. Collecting this information, you could add more contents based on their answers.

Design aspects of a care community make a huge difference in the lives of the people living there. It’s up to those of us designing the communities to ensure we are making thoughtful, impactful decisions that will make residents’ lives better.