‘At old age living becomes dwelling’ (Wohnen im Alter wird “zum Leben selbst”). When home becomes the primary environment the individuality, comfort and functionality of such home is then more crucial than ever. It is our life. How we organize this life differs from person to person. There are layers of order. I know where I keep my notes for my research on architecture and aging but they are poorly organized and I mostly have a visual memory of where I find what. A lot of what I have to do is in my head not in some organizer. In recent years I have started keeping a journal of tasks which await doing but they are mixed up with journal entries, ideas and little sketches. I need my personal GPS to find information on my mind map. This all seems a rather tenuous system of retrieval especially when I think of the challenges of memory loss that might face me in old age. Dementia and one of its forms, Altzheimers have become for many a reality at old age. I would imagine that the different ways people dwell and live their lives when healthy makes the experience of dementia a very personal one that differs from person to person.
How can architectural design support these lives? A home for people with memory loss has to serve not only the inhabitants but also staff and visitors, three groups whose needs are not always in sync. At first sight it might be tempting to give design priority to the needs of staff and the functional requirements of care but fortunately experience and common sense show that an environment designed to make its patients comfortable and to support their individuality also makes care and visits by family more pleasant.
A recent article in the German weekly magazine ‘Der Spiegel’, ‘Last Station – Wellness’ talks about a dementia facility in Switzerland called Sonnweid. It seems to provide a home where patient needs trump the institutional care processes and the care takers also feel at home. This facility provides three different ways of living depending on the stage of memory loss. People can either live in an apartment with room mates where they cook and keep house themselves or they can live in the main dementia facility or they are housed in a communal space called the ‘oasis’ during the last stage of memory loss.
Publications about principles and features of dementia care units recommend visual cues, opportunities for personalization, design features that support personal competence and clarity. In all this there has to be ‘home’ somewhere.
Could such home be similar to a child’s world where the immediate environment provides all the cues for play fantasies? A touching account of a daughter’s visit to her with Altzheimer’s afflicted mother talks about how going on a journey is a recurring ritual at every visit (Der Spiegel: ‘Irgendwann kann ich nicht mehr’) This journey consists of ‘travelling’ from the mother’s room to the visitor’s lounge where the model of a ship provides the base for travel fantasies. Maybe creating opportunities for such fantasies through materials, textures, images can contribute to the small pleasures of such excursions.
What a great and important project you have started – I wish you a lot of discussions around your initiative and that people learn to be aware about others and their own growing old. At the moment we are in the age to take care of our parents and we should get used to the idea that one day we will need help ourselves or how we can “organize” life so that our children can handle the situation. Concerning especially Altzheimer disease there are two examples transformed by “art” – one is a movie about the life of the British author Iris Murdoch (“Iris”), the other a book by the Swiss author Martin Suter “Small world”. Two imaginative and touching examples of how life can change and making us sensible for a world, that is difficult to understand and more difficult to live with when our parents or close relatives are afflicted.