Sensory-based design for our ageing population

We all deserve to age in comfort, and to feel supported within an inclusive environment. But the built environment can be challenging to navigate for those who are sensitive to environmental stimuli, such as those living with neurogenerative diseases – though it needn’t be. In research led by Talia Uylaki, we explored how sensory-based design can lead to better outcomes for people living with dementia.

Australia has an ageing population. One in six Australians are aged 65 and over, and by 2055, it is projected that this demographic will make up between 21-23% of Australia’s total population (AIHW 2023).

As we grow older, our senses grow dimmer. We can start having age-related issues with our vision, hearing, and sense of taste and smell. Age-related disabilities and illnesses can have a degenerative effect on our sensory processing, and disrupt how we process and interact with the sensory information found in our environment.

Dementia is a catch-all term to describe a range of neurodegenerative diseases that affects cognitive functions, with the most common form being Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s also extremely widespread – almost one in ten people over the age of 65 will be affected by dementia, and one in three people over the age of 85. Shockingly, it’s the leading cause of death in women, and the second leading cause of death of all Australians (Dementia Australia 2024).

People with dementia can have difficulty acclimating to their sensory environment, as dementia changes how they interact with their environment. Things that were once familiar and comforting can become strange and upsetting, particularly if there is an association with a negative incident from a person’s past experiences.

As dementia progresses, a person’s communication and mobility are affected, making it harder to self-regulate their comfort through avoiding exposure to negative sensations or seeking out pleasant sensations. For example, a person with dementia lying in bed may be uncomfortable with the bright lights overhead. They cannot reach a dimmer or light switch, nor can they communicate to their caregiver to dim the lights. As a result, they may remain in discomfort until a caregiver notices.

This inability to self-regulate exposure to sensory stimuli means we should be aware of how people with dementia react to their environment, and be proactive in providing spaces that facilitate their comfort as much as possible.

The key is sensory design

Designers of aged care facilities (and other public spaces that older people inhabit) should seize opportunities to learn about sensory design and the role that age and age-related diseases and co-morbidities can have on sensory processing, to better create age-friendly sensory spaces.

Sensory design involves creating spaces that offer varying levels of sensory stimulation to accommodate everyone’s needs. There are many sensory interventions designers can employ to help older people navigate and interact with their environment, including:

  • Quiet zones with neutral colour pallets, private seating arrangements, dimmed or warm-hued lights, and acoustic panelling for sound absorption
  • Active zones with circulation pathways, open seating arrangements, and provision of leisure activities (board games, television, radio, etc.)
  • Open and private spaces for receiving guests such as a shared lounge area, private bedroom, or enclosed courtyard
  • Sensory gardens with flowers, fruits, herbs, and vegetables, providing a calming aroma and natural textures, and encouraging the uptake of gardening activities
  • Even floor surfaces for walking and mobility devices
  • Distinct landmarks for orientation and wayfinding

By designing and creating spaces that allow for varying amounts of sensory stimulation, we can create environments that are more comfortable for our ageing population. After all, everybody deserves to age in comfort, and live in supportive and inclusive age-friendly communities and environments.

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