Home, as the saying goes, is much more than bricks and mortar; it’s where we (usually) feel safe, in control and surrounded by the people and things we care about. Home is a place, a feeling, it’s who we are and who we’ve been. Over our lifetime, we create and re-create our homes; choosing the colour on the walls, the size of our TV and the keepsakes and photos we have around us. As we age, most of us want to stay living independently in our own home for as long as possible, in control of our daily lives.
We work hard to make our homes livable as we age – from increasing the strength of light bulbs to putting in a downstairs loo. Feeling at home can be seriously challenged by moving house, moving into care or living with dementia. We can feel we’ve not just lost our home, but lost control of our lives. It can be hard to make the place where we live feel like home. But never, ever, under-estimate the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people. Research shows that the drive to create our home, our own private space, is strong. In one study, women in a care home used their handbags as a safe place for their precious and private things (click here). It was the only space they felt was theirs to control.
Designs for Life is a new project aimed at helping us to feel at home as we age and/or live with dementia. It’s been developed by Alison Connell, a local designer who has been involved in many interesting and challenging creative projects for over 30 years. Alison has done training with the Dementia Services Development Centre at Stirling University and helped North Berwick Day Centre and Longniddry Church use colour and design to transform their environments. What’s really noticeable is not just better accessibility, but a sense of light and vibrancy because of the choice of colours and fabrics.
Through Designs for Life, Alison helps people learn to use design to create a home environment that not only supports them to live well in their own home as long as possible, it also expresses their individuality and who they are; home still feels like home. Alison also uses art and design conversations to help people capture important memories, stories and retain a sense of home through more significant life changes – moving house, moving into care or living with dementia. Alison’s Story Boards are a unique and tangible way to capture and express who we are and what we care about, now and for future generations.
Designs for Life was funded initially by kind gifts from the East Lothian Health Centres, Law Quilters, Abbey Church Guild and the Glen Golf Club. We’re also very grateful for funding from the North Berwick Coastal Health and Well Being Association which has enabled us to develop and start running workshops. Also many thanks to local people who are helping us develop Designs for Life and the North Berwick Men’s Shed which has made the Story Boards. Alison will be running her first (free) Design for Life workshop in September in North Berwick.
Small things can make a huge difference, from brighter lightbulbs, to choosing colours that suit the older eye – as we age we need much more light and can struggle to distinguish blues and greens; picking the right colour can make a big difference. Dementia is of course more than memory and can affect our senses too. For example patterned carpets and noisy rooms can be very disorientating and distressing and shiny surfaces can be interpreted as wet. Colour, works of art, pictures and contrast can be used to make spaces easier to navigate and move around and there are many new and creative ideas about how we design space. There’s some interesting examples Here.
If you want to know more about how dementia can affect the senses, have a look at Agnes Houston’s booklet: Dementia is more than memory.
For me, looking back, I can see Mum and Dad’s lives gradually being swamped in plastic and gadgets from raised toilet seats and pill dispensers to alarms and door locks. Mum hated people to visit her as she saw these as signs that she was losing her independence, she started to hate her house. Downsizing and moves into care homes were fraught as we tried to manage large amounts of stuff and struggled to decide what really mattered. It was an emotionally tough time for us all; moving house is always tough, but this was something else. Mum never really felt at home in her sheltered housing, which she once described in an unguarded moment as ‘the Hutch’ and actively hated the gadgets that blinked and bleeped at her. Mum was never sure what the gadgets were there for, but she knew they were watching her, and she was right! Neither of us felt comfortable with them in the room – I felt like a security guard, she felt like a prisoner.
Things would have been different for us all if we’d known about design. Mum and Dad could have made simple changes that made their lives easier and safer and I could have hoped them make the changes they wanted, to stay in control. If we’d had the Story Boards, we’d have had a way to have conversations about what made home feel like home and that would’ve helped us all plan and manage the challenges of ageing and living with dementia. I’m sure there would still be plastic round the house and tears and sadness, but we’d have had some help to find our way through a difficult time.
Thank you to Alison for all she’s done to make this work. If you’d like to know more about Designs for Life, get in touch and find out more. You can also sign up for the first (free) Designs for Life workshop in North Berwick on 19th September at the Hope Rooms. Places are limited so please book.