A recent article in The Philadelphia Inquirer quotes an interior designer who shares information she has applied to make it easier for her father who has Alzheimer’s to live comfortably and safely in his home.

Mary McCreesh is not only a designer, but is also an aging-in-place specialist. What she has learned in her line of work is surprisingly relevant to managing certain symptoms of Alzheimer’s and related dementias. She has consulted with a neurologist and psychiatrist to develop what she calls Design Prescription.

“I’m giving people some simple things that are inexpensive to do that can save so much stress, so much time, and help them to enjoy their loved ones, even as they start to fade away. If you’re living with someone with Alzheimer’s you don’t have time to read all the scholarly research to learn, for example, ‘What can I do to stop my loved one from peeing in the trash can?’ I help them to distill it down,” she explains.

Alzheimer’s does not just affect memory. People with the disease also often have challenges perceiving colors, contrast, and depth, as well as organizing visual information. Our brains tell us how far one thing is from another, and know where one thing ends and another begins. Alzheimer’s disease affects the part of the brain that organizes these visual images.

For some, not recognizing these visual cues are the first symptoms of the disease. Others do not suffer visual-spatial challenges until the disease progresses. In either case, alternatives to medication include design choices which can help solve some of these challenges.

A potential trip hazard is a rug with a modern pattern. This can be perceived by someone with dementia as an uneven terrain or something to step over. Contrasts in flooring, such as a light colored rug on a dark wood floor, might appear to be an elevation change. Small tiles may appear as scattered objects to be picked up. Individuals with Alzheimer’s may also have trouble distinguishing actual elevation changes between rooms or accurately judging the height of a step, for which a ramp may be a safer approach.

Then there is the “white-on-white” issue. A white toilet on a white floor with a white wall can be hard to visually navigate for someone with Alzheimer’s. In this example, they may not be able to see the toilet. As a result, a more visible (i.e. contrasting color) hamper or trash can may be used. An easy fix would be to paint a contrasting color behind the toilet.
Two more recommendations:

  • Keep essentials in plain sight. McCreesh recommends removing the doors from kitchen cabinets and putting plates, bowls, cups, etc. where they can easily be seen.
  • Minimize clutter. At meal time, that means avoiding patterned plates (which can be confusing) and even serving food one item at a time.

These observations and suggestions may be useful to families navigating the challenges of dementia care with their loved ones. Sometimes looking at a problem through another person’s eyes can help us to come up with creative solutions.