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Making Memory Care Human: Innovating LTC Design

Making Memory Care Human: Innovating LTC Design
Recently I attended the Environments for Aging (EFA) conference in Anaheim, CA, a production of the industry magazine of the same name. It was our second year there, and it definitely did not disappoint! 
 
Kim Warchol and I attended the conference last year to learn more about the architects and designers who create long-term care communities, and to see if there was a seat at that table for dementia care, in general, and specifically for Dementia Care Specialists and the memory care consultations and training solutions we provide. 
 
We were blown away by the positive response we received. So much so that we were invited to host this year’s preconference event with our Dementia Capable Care One-Day Foundation Course. Fifteen architects, designers, and executives joined us to learn about the different forms of dementia, the abilities and challenges associated with each stage of the disease, and how to customize the physical environment to maximize the remaining abilities of a person with Alzheimer’s/dementia, while compensating for any risks. 
 
Customizing Environments
As a final project that day, the class broke up into teams, each team crafting a different space (bedroom, bathroom, dining area) for people in different stages of dementia. The groups had a lot of dialog about their decisions, and what they came up with was amazing. Check it out!


 
 
Trends in Memory Care Design
There were definitely some different trends at EFA this year, compared to last year. Last year I heard a lot about beautiful furnishings, environmental sustainability, and repurposing or renovating existing spaces for future use. 
 
This year, it was all about flooring and lighting, small house/neighborhood design, and brand-new buildings. I attended a session on Repurposing Versus Rebuilding, and the panelists all agreed that the landscape of long-term care is changing so much, so fast, that there is less and less merit in trying to retro-fit and update an outmoded environment. If the building is institutional, full of dead-end hallways and double-loaded corridors, providers might serve themselves and their residents better in the long run by completely rebuilding, since the costs associated with bringing electrical, HVAC, and windows up to speed might not be worth the investment. 
 
I was skeptical, because many of our clients have had great success with gutting their spaces—giant, multi-purpose activity rooms, for example—and creating more accessible, functional areas within them. When I saw the amazing new projects in planning or construction, though, and their European-inspired small-village concepts, I could definitely see the appeal of “out with the old, in with the new”! Easily visible apartments opening up into an internal courtyard or a dynamic living room did seem much more inviting to the kinds of functional, purposeful activity we craft for our clients—much more inviting than long hallways with one random “wayfinding” piece at each end.

Building Cutting-Edge Memory Care Communities
My colleague Sharon Host and I spent a ton of time in our booth in the exhibitor area at EFA, getting to know the other attendees and their place in the long-term care world. We met dozens of architects from around the country who all work for firms that specialize in eldercare in some way, or would like to. For many firms, long-term care represents one of the industries they serve, and for some, it’s an area of complete immersion. Everyone was there to learn, just like Sharon and me, so we all tried to ask as many questions as possible during exhibitor hours while cramming mini strawberry shortcakes into our mouths at the same time!
 
What struck me over and over again was how often I heard the same goal: To design and build cutting-edge memory care communities, in whatever format possible, and the same fear: That while their firm “does” memory care, they feel like it could be way better, and they are worried about losing out to firms that have more of a memory care “brand.”

It never occurred to me before that architectural and design agencies would need to put such a consistent stamp on their memory care projects, but it made complete sense once I thought about it. It reinforced the need, too, for us to all have close collaborators and really like-minded partners in this industry. If we are truly going to create the best possible living situation for our seniors, every element in every long-term care community needs to support and enhance quality of life for the people living and working there. From staff training to recreational support to the carpeting on the floors to the sounds in the dining room, every element is essential to raising the standard of care for our elders.
 
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More Trends in Dementia Care Design
Similar to last year, there was a substantial number of owners and operators of long-term care communities at EFA. I love getting to meet these men and women, because they have so much vision! Not only are they trying to grow their businesses, they are committed to having the very best environments for their residents. I got to meet Josh McClellan, the CEO of Azura Memory Care, which operates out of my home state of Wisconsin, and talk about the memory-care landscape here and what we expect to see in the next five to 10 years. 
 
Many providers come from unrelated academic and/or professional disciplines, but their personal experience with a loved one with skilled nursing, assisted living, or memory care needs drove them to the world of long-term care, and they feed that passion every day because, as one owner told me, “I couldn’t find a decent place in my hometown for my mother who had dementia. No place that felt like a real home. So I built it.” I was introduced to Lutfi Bustami from California, an engineer-turned-assisted-living-owner who openly admitted, laughing, that he was Executive Director, Dietary Aide, and Lead Custodian of his building for months after it opened. 
 
It was so inspiring to meet so many people who are passionate about doing memory care right. I am always thrilled to meet others who care as much as we do about making the world a better place for people who have dementia.

Do you share our vision? Plan to design and build a community around a specialized model of care? Let us know, and don't hesitate to give us a call and find out how we can help!
 
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