Over the past few years, dementia design has become hugely important, with many taking a real interest in how good design can provide support for users and carers. We caught up with Catherine Hawcroft, our designer and dementia specialist at Knightsbridge to find out more about this and the differences small details can make.
What makes dementia furniture ranges different from general healthcare or care sector furniture?
Through my research, I found that when designing for dementia care environments, it is more important to consider the similarities rather than the differences. Knightsbridge already has vast experience in a range of healthcare settings, and so many of our ranges already cater for those living with dementia, yet our sales team required training and resources to help them specify the right furniture to complement a supportive environment to ensure users felt at home.
What are the main design considerations for dementia furniture?
It is important to take a holistic approach to dementia care environments – every element of the space needs to be considered as a whole – the carpets, soft furnishings, lighting, and signage.
Patterns and colours are a design element which must be considered. For instance, for those who have occipital lobe damage which causes visual problems, it is important to use tonal differences to highlight ‘sitting’ and ‘grabbing’ areas. For example edges of the table, arm rests or other boundaries such as drawers need to be marked clearly.
There are also some basic guidelines particularly for help with users who have occipital lobe damage (this causes visual problems) within the brain. Always try to provide a 30-point LRV difference (Light Reflectance Value) for contrast. This is sometimes misunderstood as a contrast of colour but is in fact tonal. A red and a blue with the same LRV may look very similar to a person with occipital lobe damage, where two blues which are tonally very different e.g. duck egg and indigo, will look sufficiently different.
We also find it is important to avoid busy patterns, as these can prove distressing and confusing for users, as can flecked patterns, which may appear as dirt that a user with short-term memory problems will repeatedly try to clean.
Design of the furniture itself is also imperative. Ensuring that furniture is solidly built helps users retain more independence, which is important. Easy to grip armrests, skids on dining chairs and sturdy arms and backs provide not only comfort but reassurance.
In your experience do care operators understand the need to commission dementia specific furniture or are they failing to purchase the most appropriate products for this very specialist group of people?
I believe that as the field grows, as does the understanding of the needs of people living with dementia, we will be able to focus more on quality of life and the importance of details such as choosing the right fabrics, specifying a wide variety of products and combining these with other aspects of the care environment.
How can dementia-specific furniture ranges enhance the lives of people with dementia?
It is vital to put users at the centre of the design process and consider their needs and feelings throughout to ensure that we design furniture that can be hugely supportive.
Whilst designing Caspia we used finishes with high contrast LRVs (light reflectance values) and familiar shapes to make an attractive and practical range. We also understood that people’s condition can develop, so we offered vision panels and the facility to take the doors off entirely if this becomes necessary. We did not want to have windows on all of the drawers, as we felt this might affect a person’s dignity, however, the ‘haberdashery style’ profiled top edges allow visual access from above without putting everything on show.
Many of the features of our furniture are subtle, for example a dark edge on a dining table could prevent someone knocking their fork on the floor and having to ask for help; the positive effect on a person’s self-confidence and dignity from a small thing like this can be huge!
What design improvements do you expect to see over the next few years? How do you see ranges evolving?
The key improvement in the next few years will be in people’s understanding of the field. Since my work with Bradford Dementia Group and Stirling University, I have discovered just how big of a part good designs can play. It is our job to work with our customers to create environments which support users and facilitate good care.
Do you have any tips for trusts or care home operators when it comes to commissioning dementia furniture?
I can’t stress enough the importance of designing the environment rather than thinking of it as sourcing a quantity of furniture that is needed. Each project is different and it is important to remember this. Knightsbridge has the portfolio; expertise and enthusiasm to support scheme managers when selecting the right products in the right specification for environments they want to create rather than settling for a ‘one size fits all’ approach.