ExclusivesThinkingWhy designing for dementia means designing for everyone

Creating dementia-friendly offices improves workplace wellbeing for us all. Emma Bould, from Alzheimer’s Society, and Elizabeth Butcher, from Tarkett flooring, explain…
Sophie Barton5 years ago14 min

It’s often thought of as an illness that strikes later in life, but dementia affects over 42,000 people under the age of 65 in the UK. And increasingly, it’s having an impact on our working population, with 18% continuing to work after diagnosis. As a result, designing for dementia is more important than ever.

“Dementia is becoming a much bigger issue for employers,” says Emma Bould, from Alzheimer’s Society. “Diagnosis rates are rising and because we’re becoming more aware of the symptoms, it’s now often detected earlier, when people are still working.”

Add to this the fact that we have an ageing population, which is under financial pressure to remain in employment for longer, and it seems we have something of a ticking timebomb on our hands. Some 850,000 people in the UK are affected by dementia, but this number is set to soar to over one million by 2025.

“From the shop floor to the boardroom, dementia affects every workplace; from people struggling with the early symptoms of memory loss, to those juggling a job whilst caring for a loved one,” says Jeremy Hughes, CEO of Alzheimer’s Society. “As the condition touches the lives of more people, businesses must gear up to support people with dementia.”

So, what can be done to help those with dementia who still want, or need, to work? While sound management plays a vital role, so does the physical workspace itself. In fact, everything from décor to flooring, and even desk configuration can have a profound impact on those affected.

Elizabeth Butcher passionately agrees that we should be designing dementia-friendly workspaces. She is marketing manager at specialist flooring company, Tarkett, which recently published a white paper on designing supportive care homes for aged care and dementia.

“When you’re designing for dementia people think you’re designing for a minority but, in reality, the principles can benefit everybody,” she tells Work in Mind. “You’ll actually improve the wellbeing of the workforce as a whole.”

Designing for cognitive support

Although dementia affects everybody differently, it can impact day-to-day memory, problem solving and decision-making, as well as the visual system. And while today’s open plan offices foster a sense of community, they can prove difficult for people faced with cognitive challenges.

“Anyone with dementia needs a quiet space, where they can focus on their tasks,” says Emma Bould. “In today’s open plan offices, it can be harder to concentrate and the noise can be disorientating too, so acoustic solutions are particularly important.” 

Bould adds that wayfinding is another crucial component of a dementia-friendly workspace.

“Clear signage is critical for anyone with dementia,” she says. “When you enable people to orientate themselves independently, you boost their self-esteem and give them the autonomy to continue work. This applies to everything, from identifying where the cupboards are to where the toilet is. Here, you need to identify both the entrance and exits – if there’s no sign to tell you the way back to the office, it can prove a challenge.

“Signs also need to be simple and easy to read – ensure they are well-lit, at eye-level and not highly stylised. In large offices, maps help people find their way around the building clearly. Glass-front cupboards are good too, because they make it easier to locate specific items. Likewise, keep coffee and tea in clear containers so people can see what’s inside. It’s all about enabling them to retain their independence for longer.” 

Respecting visual impairment

Surfaces, such as flooring and walls, are incredibly important too. To someone with dementia, a high reflective surface can look like water, while patterns can give the impression that there’s a sudden change in depth.

“Patterns can become distorted too – a striped carpet may look like a staircase or a change in depth for example,” says Bould. “Likewise, if the floor and walls are all grey, they can appear to merge into one. This makes it difficult for anyone with the visuo-perception difficulties that come with dementia to navigate that space.”

Elizabeth Butcher adds that to someone with dementia, a dark grey or black carpet can look like a black hole.

“It’s like asking somebody to walk off a cliff,” she says. “And that creates a level of anxiety that nobody else around them will understand. Likewise, very light floors can create a feeling of walking on air. They’re very fashionable, because they are clean, clinical and modern, but they become destabilising. That then takes your independence away, because you don’t want to walk on it.”

The impact that design decisions can have for those with dementia may not be easy to comprehend, but Tarkett has launched a pioneering virtual reality empathy platform to help us do just that. The world’s first evidence-based dementia filter, it enables architects and designers to see through the eyes of a dementia resident, helping them understand how much colours, contrasts and patterns affect the space around them.

Choosing colour for mood

The influence of colour on a person’s mood is also important. For example, while mauves may be very fashionable, to someone with visual impairment they can seem gloomy or depressive.

“Yellow is often used in office spaces because it’s thought to foster creativity,” explains Butcher. “But reports suggest it can make someone with dementia feel nauseous. Likewise, if you use red on a large surface area it can increase anxiety. Blues can be perceived as green too – if you ask a colleague to pick up the blue folder, they may bring the wrong one.” 

A collaborative approach

Crucially, Butcher adds that when designing with dementia in mind, we need a holistic approach.

“It’s not about looking at flooring, wall paint, lighting and furniture in isolation,” she says. “It’s our responsibility as manufacturers to collaborate. We can specify the perfect flooring, but we need to sync with the other providers or you could create a problem. For example, if you have a spotlight glaring down on certain furniture, it can create patches of shadow. If that’s an office chair, it will put people off sitting down, or they may feel uncomfortable getting up.”

Cost is no barrier

And while businesses may be put off by the capital expenditure involved in creating dementia-friendly workspaces, Butcher is quick to point out that they’ll reap long term financial rewards. Not only will they benefit from retaining trusted employees, but accidents will also be reduced.

“Designing for the most vulnerable is cost-efficient, if not cost-saving,” she says. “Slips and trips cost UK employers £512million a year, and these often involve older, more vulnerable people. But if we design spaces with these employees in mind, they are more likely to be at work, not in hospital. You’ll also keep insurance costs down. Staff will feel happier too, and when their wellbeing is good their productivity will be good.

“There are so many ways that businesses can benefit if they design with dementia in mind. We should be caring for the most vulnerable in society, and helping them work for as long as they can.”

For more information on designing for dementia, click here

With thanks to Emma Bould from Alzheimer’s Society and Elizabeth Butcher from Tarkett.

Emma Bould, Alzheimer’s Society
Elizabeth Butcher, Tarkett UK

Sophie Barton

Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 20 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.

Subscribe to our newsletter