Designing for dementia : an assessment of the impact of the physical environment on wayfinding success for residents in long term care settings

Verity Faith

Research output: Other contribution

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It is acknowledged that one of the consequences of the ageing process is cognitive decline, which leads to an increase in the incidence of illnesses such as dementia. This has become ever more relevant due to the projected increase in the ageing demographic. Dementia affects visuo-spatial perception, causing difficulty with wayfinding, even during the early stages of the disease. The literature widely recognises the physical environment’s role in alleviating symptoms of dementia and improving quality of life for residents. It also identifies the lack of available housing options for older people with dementia and consequently the current stock is ill-equipped to provide adequate support.
Recent statistics indicate that 80% of those residing in nursing or residential care homes have some form of dementia or severe memory problems. The shift towards institutional care settings, the need for specialist support and care, places a greater impetus on the need for a person-centred approach to tackle issues related to wayfinding and dementia.
This thesis therefore aims to improve design for dementia in nursing and residential care settings in the context of Northern Ireland. This will be undertaken in order to provide a better understanding of how people with dementia experience the physical environment and to highlight features of the design that assist with wayfinding. Currently there are limited guidelines on design for dementia, meaning that many of these are theoretical, anecdotal and not definitive. Hence a greater verification to address the less recognised design issues is required. This is intended to ultimately improve quality of life, wellbeing, independence and uphold the dignity of people with dementia living in nursing or residential care homes.
The research design uses a mixed methods approach. A thorough preparation and consideration of ethical issues informed the methodology. The various facets were also trialled and piloted to identify any ethical, technological, methodological, data collection and analysis issues. The protocol was then amended to improve or resolve any of the aforementioned issues. Initially a questionnaire based on leading design recommendations was conducted with home managers. Semi-structured interviews were developed from this and conducted with staff and resident’s next of kin. An evidence-based approach was used to design a study which used ethnographic methods, including a wayfinding task. This followed a repeated measures design which would be used to actively engage residents with dementia in the research. Complementary to the wayfinding task, conversational and semi-structured interviews were used to promote dialogue and direct responses with the person with dementia. In addition to this, Space Syntax methodologies were used to examine the physical properties of the architectural layout. This was then cross-examined with interview responses and data from the wayfinding tasks.
A number of plan typologies were identified and were determined as synonymous with decision point types which needed to be made during the walks. The empirical work enabled the synthesis of environmental features which support wayfinding.
Results indicate that particular environmental features are associated with improved performance on the wayfinding tasks. By enhancing design for dementia, through identifying the attributes, challenges with wayfinding may be overcome and the benefits of the physical environment can be seen to promote wellbeing.
The implications of this work mean that the environmental features which have been highlighted from the project can be used to inform guidelines, thus adding to existing knowledge. Future work would involve the dissemination of this information and the potential for it to be made into design standards or regulations which champion design for dementia. These would increase awareness for designers and stakeholders undertaking new projects, extensions or refurbishments.
A person-centred, evidence-based design was emphasised throughout the project which guaranteed an in-depth study. There were limitations due to the available resources, time and funding. Future research would involve testing the identified environmental features within a specific environment to enable measured observation of improvements.
Original languageEnglish
TypePhD thesis
Media of outputPDF
PublisherQueen's University Belfast
Number of pages270
Place of PublicationBelfast
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jun 2014


  • Dementia
  • Architecture
  • Design
  • Wayfinding
  • Nursing home
  • Residential home
  • Long term care
  • Space syntax

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