Empathy is the golden rule in designing for people with dementia, explained Ruth Drew, director of information and support service at the Alzheimer’s Association. “Overall it’s important to really look at a home through the eyes of a person with Alzheimer’s or another dementia disease,” she said.

The instinct for many caregivers is introduce nostalgic elements from the patient’s history, to possibly trigger good memories. This “reminiscence therapy” animates Town Square, an Alzheimer’s care facility franchise in California decorated to evoke the 1950s. Operated by the nonprofit George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers Inc. and Senior Helpers, the “imitation villages” feature a sequence of retro-themed American vignettes (pdf) such as a diner with a jukebox playing 1950s tunes, an old-fashioned barbershop, and a garage where patients can tinker with cars from their youth.

Drew similarly recalled one woman who meticulously recreated her childhood living home for her mother who was moving into an assisted-living facility. She carefully positioned the furniture, drapery, picture frames, and even tracked down the same wallpaper print. In the end, she had to readjust the room because her mother saw the tiny patterns as live bugs creeping on her wall. “Color and patterns are very important,” Drew said. “There have been times when someone will have a small, dark area rug and notice that the person with Alzheimer’s is walking around it because it looks like a hole in the floor to them.”

The UK Social Care Institute for Excellence cautions about the limits to the nostalgia-based approach.”Talking about the past can also bring up happy memories and good feelings, and this can be wonderful in itself, but particularly if a person is finding life difficult. It is also the case that reminiscence can sometimes provoke painful memories.”

The most important tip in designing for people dementia is remembering to change things up based on their perceptions. “These are progressive diseases,” Drew said. “Something that might work for a time may not work forever and something that works for one person may not work so well for someone else.”

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