Design for Dementia

If you’ve clicked through, well done! You’re one step closer to understanding how to make a design more dementia friendly.

We don’t claim to know everything (yet!), we simply wanted to share with you some of our findings so far and enlighten anyone willing enough to read, on what has expanded our own outlook on the disease and how to be inclusive within design.

Through recent sessions with our Annual 2022 Charity Alzheimer’s Society we learned about the bookcase analogy – this sets the scene within a person with dementia’s mind where their memory is described as a set of two bookcases.

The first bookcase is very tall and quite flimsy. This bookcase represents facts, figures, long and short-term memories, and the logistics of everyday life. On the top (on the flimsiest shelf) are our most recent memories – this is where we store short term information. An example of the top shelf memories would be appointment details, what you had for lunch today, a new acquaintance’s name etc. The further down the bookshelf you go, the more long-term are the memories are being stored. Anniversary details and memories (for example), holidays, house moves, until finally, you get to the bottom shelf. This bottom shelf contains childhood memories, and is the most secure of all.

Dementia effectively causes this bookshelf to rock and become unstable. As you’d imagine from this analogy, the memories on the top shelf go first and most completely, with a gradual state of loss as you go down the shelves. This helps us understand why a person with dementia may suddenly think they’re living in the 1950s again. If you’re suddenly back in your 50’s style kitchen you probably have no idea how to put a modern day electric kettle on!

This can be frustrating when others act as if you can’t even make a simple cup of tea. Rather than taking the kettle away and embarrassing/ infantilising the user with dementia, it was suggested that a installing a traditional kettle – i.e. one that boils on the hob – would be a good way of keeping independence.

Whilst every case is different, depending on how rapidly memory loss (and other symptoms) are progressing, this is a nice analogy to remind us to put ourselves in others shoes.

But wait – there’s also a second bookcase! This bookcase is shorter, stouter, and more solid – it’s filled with all the books that contain ‘what makes you, you’; it’s more connected with your feelings and emotions.

When this bookcase is rocked by dementia, these books – although they do get lost every now and again – are a lot more stable. This means emotional memories and relationships are retained more easily in a person with dementia’s mind.

It’s important to understand how these two bookcases work together; whilst they may not be able to remember going to for lunch yesterday with their daughter, they will still remember the happy feeling associated with being with that person. The hard bit about this is how frustrating dementia can be. A person may not remember that you’ve actually answered their ‘how are you’ question 45 times that day already, but the feeling of anxiety and anger they feel when you snap at them will linger. Over time, these emotional memories will dictate their relationships.

In conclusion, knowing the thought process that a person living with dementia is experiencing can go a long way to helping us design spaces for them. Creating a safe, happy, and inclusive space, could be the difference between a user feeling welcome or not.

On 11th September 2022, five GT3 team members will be running the Great North Run for Alzheimer’s Society. Help us reach our fundraising target of £1875 for this great cause by donating here: