Designing for dementia

Laura Archer of IEMA Futures sets out how careful design can help people living with dementia to go about their lives – something Newcastle University’s NU-Age module is encouraging students to think about


Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability, with symptoms including memory loss and difficulty with problem solving or language. It can also have an effect on a person’s mood or behaviour, and interfere with daily life. It is most common in older people, and the most common form is Alzheimer’s. 

There are roughly 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK. This is only set to increase: research by the Alzheimer’s Society predicts there will be one million people living with dementia in the UK by 2021, and two million by 2051. This article looks at how changing details of design in places could make life a lot easier for people with dementia. 


It is imperative that the design and location of housing for older people and those with dementia is carefully considered, located within a community with only a short distance (five-10 minutes) away from local amenities – while keeping things as normal as possible. This encourages and enables independent living. 

When designing housing, less is more. Step-free apartments, plenty of lighting, signage and helpful aids such as handrails can have a huge impact. Those with dementia can be sensitive to noise, so this should be another factor when deciding on the location of the housing. Ensure that appropriate soundproofing is taken throughout the living space. 

Attention to colour choice also has positive implications. Contrasting colours on doors, stairs and handrails draw attention to the feature, making it easier for someone with dementia to get around and building their confidence. Considered colour choices can help everyone as they get older, not just those living with dementia, as many people experience changes to vision as a result of ageing. 

Out and about

It is vital that places are well signed and only a short walk away. Signage should be simple and frequent to ensure it is easily followed. Landmarks, architectural features and even something as simple as a bench can also aid with navigation. 

Open and green space has been proven to have endless benefits for people, and there is no exception for those living with dementia. Open space should be well designed with good lighting, benches and toilets, and should be located where noise levels are minimal. It can also be incorporated into housing developments – for those who aren’t able to leave the house, connecting with nature through viewpoints and windows can be beneficial. 

Shops are increasingly training staff members to be able to assist customers with dementia. There are normally help desks in shopping centres with large information signs to make them easy to find. 


It is important that people are taught about illnesses such as dementia so that mitigating elements can be incorporated into future developments. Newcastle University offers the option to study a cross-faculty module about ageing: Newcastle Ageing Generations Education (NU-AGE). The aims of the NU-Age module include:

  • Demonstrating the relevance of ageing in the modern world, with examples arising from a range of disciplines including health, engineering and the arts
  • Emphasising positive concepts relating to ageing, such as ‘ageing well’, the maintenance of health, and anti-ageist approaches to public engagement
  • Facilitating interaction between students and older people and creating opportunities for co-learning
  • Raising awareness of the different ageing-related research currently being undertaken at Newcastle University, in all three faculties.

In this module, a number of different concepts and issues related to ageing are studied – but with a twist. You are joined in lectures by older, retired people, who offer their views on and experiences with ageing. It is also a useful way for older people to stay in touch with the university. Bringing education and intergenerational engagement together is a unique and brilliant concept, which other universities should adopt. 

To find out more about the module, visit 


Image credit | iStock
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