TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A monochromatic color scheme might be a chic design choice, but it’s not a good aging-in-place option for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia who have issues with depth perception.
And a small, black remote control with all the tiny buttons? It isn’t a good choice because it can be confusing and a source of agitation or aggression for someone with dementia.
People with Alzheimer’s also lose their balance, which means that their favorite rocking chairs are a no-no.
Those are some of interior designer Rosemary Bakker’s "don'ts" highlighted in an Alzheimer’s Foundation of America video of a dementia-friendly apartment that advocates are using to raise awareness about the disease.
Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are growing public health concerns. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 5 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s, including 538,000 people in Florida.
With a large senior population, the issue particularly hits home in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared Monday in Jacksonville to tout $12 million in additional funding in the new state budget for issues related to Alzheimer’s and dementia. He also issued a proclamation about June being Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month in Florida.
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, through the video, is trying to offer ideas to help as people with Alzheimer’s or dementia seek to continue living at home instead of moving to facilities for care.
Bakker, a certified interior designer who also has a master’s degree in gerontology, designed the apartment. She told The News Service of Florida that the key element for a dementia-friendly design is understanding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and how they impact people.
"You have to enter their world," she said.
People with Alzheimer’s lose their depth perception, which means that color contrasts are needed for everything, from the furniture and paint choices --- to types of large and small appliances.
Appliances should also have easy on and off operations that someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s can easily understand and operate without getting frustrated or agitated, Bakker said. She added that agitation is a result of people being forced to negotiate their way through what can be unfriendly environments.
The apartment features a smart refrigerator that connects to the internet and allows caregivers or family members to check the contents from afar. The apartment also has a stove outfitted with what are called "smartburners," which allow it to get hot enough to cook but not hot enough to cause a fire if food is left unattended and burns.
And because people with Alzheimer’s disease can have difficulty sleeping, the apartment features optimum glare-free lighting that operates with someone’s natural circadian rhythms. Bakker also recommended a blue light near the bedside to help with sleep.
While younger people can get Alzheimer’s disease, age is the biggest risk factor. Slightly more than 5 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The numbers of people diagnosed increased to nearly 14 percent in people between 75 and 84 and 35 percent in people ages 85 and older.
Sobering statistics like that led Charles J. Fuschillo, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, to hire Bakker to design the apartment.
"Safety and quality of life are two of the most important concerns for families, which is why we want them to know about steps they can take to make their homes more dementia-friendly," Fuschillo said.
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Because he planned on using it as a teaching tool, Fuschillo had the apartment built in the foundation’s New York City-based Education and Resource Center. Before COVID-19, the center offered public access to classes for care partners, families and people living with Alzheimer’s to connect and socialize. It also hosted educational seminars for health care professionals.
While COVID-19 temporarily shut the center to the public, Fuschillo wanted to ensure the apartment could still be seen. The foundation produced a nine-minute video highlighting the designs.
Tallahassee resident Janice Powers was surprised by some of the things she learned after watching the video.
Powers was forced to move her husband of 53 years, Hollis Powers, to a dementia-specific assisted living facility in July 2019 after it became too difficult for her to keep him at home.
A former registered nurse, Powers is more knowledgeable than most about caregiving. But she said she picked up tips from the video that would have made caring for her husband at home easier.
"Anything that can sustain them being in the home longer is just wonderful because that’s the goal," she said.
Powers said she was going to make some changes to her husband’s room at the assisted living facility, such as purchasing a clock that has large white lettering against a black background and displays the time, month and year.
Powers said she also planned to share information with the facility about dinnerware shown in the apartment video: ergonomically designed mugs with large handles that are easy to hold; raised plates that lessen distance between the food on the plate and a person’s mouth; and weighted silverware to help negate the effects of tremors.
Fuschillo said his goal is to expand the foundation's physical footprint. Construction on the foundation’s second Education and Resource Center is underway in Long Island, N.Y., and he is planning a third center outside the Northeast sometime next year.
"And Florida is our next target state," Fuschillo said.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.