By Zina Kumok (September 1, 2023)
If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, you can make certain home improvements to help your loved one feel more comfortable and safe at home. We spoke with experts in the field about how to create a better environment for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias:
- Monica Moreno, senior director of care and support at the Alzheimer’s Association
- Eugenia Welch, executive director of Alzheimer’s San Diego
- Linda Mockler, LMSW, M.Ed, senior social worker at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
- Leah Daly, MPH, CHES, education program manager at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
- Lori Nisson, MWS, LCSW, family and community services director at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute
Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease
Dementia comes in different types, and the disease generally includes symptoms such as memory loss, poor reasoning skills, and a loss of other cognitive functions. Memory loss associated with dementia is greater than the type of memory loss associated with normal aging.
Alzheimer’s is a specific disease that can result in dementia and other issues. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, it can result in additional difficulty walking, speaking, and even swallowing.
“During the early stage of the disease, individuals with dementia may only need a little help in conducting daily activities and living on their own. As the disease progresses into the middle stages, however, the physical abilities of people begin to decline. Balance and mobility may become more challenging, vision problems can occur, and judgment may become compromised,” says Moreno.
“Since Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, it’s critical that families and other caregivers monitor for changes and adapt the living environment accordingly,” Moreno adds.
Creating a Safe Space in the Home
Whether an individual has dementia or specifically Alzheimer’s, the home environment can play a huge role in how they manage the disease. A well-designed space can help the individual age in the familiar comfort of their home rather than a care facility.
“For them to be able to do that, we need to encourage independence and dignity for that person by creating an environment that focuses on what they can do rather than what they cannot,” says Welch. “It’s not healthy for anyone to live in an environment where they are constantly reminded of their disability.” You should keep key environmental considerations in mind when optimizing your home for a person diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Safety and Accessibility
Many of the safety and accessibility suggestions listed below are smart practices for any home, but they’re critical for a person living with memory loss and cognitive impairments.
Linda Mockler and Leah Daly at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America say that adding motion sensor detectors that alert a care partner if a patient is on the move are one of the best features to invest in. “Unsupervised walking, also known as wandering, can be a dangerous or even deadly practice for individuals living with [Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias],” Mockler says. “Alerts like this can discreetly alert a care partner that someone has left the residence and they can take immediate action.”
Below are some other ways to improve safety and accessibility in your home:
- Remove tripping hazards: It can be best to remove rugs or mats altogether. Rugs can be confusing for those with memory loss because they may think they’re an object they need to step over, which can result in accidental falls. If you do have mats or rugs, make sure they’re nonslip.
- Install handrails and grab bars: Balance support should be added along stairs and in bathrooms. You can use grippy mats in the shower to prevent slips; ideally, you should also have a shower chair available for use.
- Check smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors: You can also invest in smart smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors that can remotely notify a caregiver if the alarm goes off.
- Replace doorknobs: Door handles that push down are easier to open than a traditional doorknob; this change is especially helpful for those who also have arthritis.
In some cases, people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s also have low vision. This, combined with cognitive decline, can make seeing more difficult. Good lighting can help your loved one navigate the home safely.
“Aim for good lighting and offer color contrast in rooms to distinguish between walls and flooring,” says Nisson. “In the bathroom, [provide] contrast between flooring and the shower or toilet to support visual-spatial changes that may occur.”
You can improve the lighting conditions in your home by doing the following:
- Add more natural light: Look into enlarging or upgrading your windows to bring more natural light into the home. Keep blinds and curtains open during the day.
- Add motion-sensor lights: Add motion-sensor lights in poorly lit areas such as closets or basements. Motion sensor lights are easy to install and can also be used in bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms.
- Color contrast: Paint the walls and floors contrasting colors to help distinguish one from the other.
- Make light switches stand out: Paint light switches a different color from the wall so they stand out.
Organization and Navigation
People with memory loss disease may have difficulty remembering where things are and even how to get around a home—even if they’ve lived there for decades.
“Labels are helpful anywhere around the house where someone might need some extra help to jog their memory, including drawers and bathroom cabinets,” says Daly.
You can take a few steps to promote organization and navigation in the home:
- Label rooms: Labels can be helpful outside of doors or even to show which direction a room is in, making it easier to find the bathroom or the bedroom.
- Label dresser drawers and closets: Mention what’s inside to make locating everyday items easier.
- Only use items or rooms for their intended purpose: It’s important to keep everything in the home “obvious and straightforward,” says Welch. For example, bedrooms should not double as offices, and you should “never use cups, bowls, or plates, to hold anything that is not edible,” Welch says.
- Mark food items: Mark cabinets with labels or install cabinets with see-through doors so the person can easily view what’s inside.
- Label faucets: Create “hot” and “cold” labels for sinks and shower faucets. Nisson also suggests adding instruction labels if it’s a little more complex to turn on.
- Remove unnecessary clutter: Having too much clutter can make it hard for the individual to find what they need and can also be a trip hazard.
- Tie-up cords: Use clips or adhesives to keep extension or charging cords neatly tucked away so they’re not a tripping hazard.
Cognitive Support and Engagement
Alzheimer’s and dementia lead to brain deterioration, which can make the person feel more disconnected from their home and the outside world, according to Mockler. “This disconnection makes it challenging to interact with this world that becomes more confusing as the disease progresses,” she says. “The severity of memory loss affects how individuals experience the world around them. Mild memory loss may lead to an individual forgetting appointments, where objects are located, or the ability to do some complex tasks like creating a budget.”
You can make a few changes at home to provide cognitive support and engagement:
- Use a monthly wall calendar: A calendar can help organize appointments and social events. You can also set up a corkboard or dry-erase board with a list of important phone numbers. Some doctors recommend having photos next to each phone number as well.
- Keep familiar items around: Putting out more family photos and familiar knickknacks can reinforce a sense of continuity and security.
- Install a large text clock: Many clocks have figures that are too small to see, and it’s easy for someone with memory loss to forget what day it is. Find a clock that includes the day of the week, the date, and the time.
Assistive Technology and Smart-Home Solutions
Both Mockler and Daly of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America recommend investing in smart-home technology to improve the quality of life for memory loss patients at home. Below are a few ideas:
- Automatic fire extinguishers: The kitchen is often the most dangerous room of the home. You can have fire extinguishers installed above the stove which will automatically deploy if there’s a cooking fire.
- Smart stoves: You can replace your stove burners with smart burners that are temperature-controlled and have automatic shut-off features when someone walks away from the stove.
- Smart thermostats: You can program these to be set with specific temperature modes during certain times and also access them remotely.
- Smart-home devices: Smart-home speakers can be programmed to provide medication, meal, or appointment reminders. Caregivers can often set these reminders remotely from an app.
- Cameras: Caregivers may install in-home cameras to monitor their loved ones while they’re away. This can allow the caregiver to still work or run errands while knowing their family member is safe.
- Smart TV and accessories: Choose a voice-activated or other user-friendly TV remote that features fewer buttons. You can often program these buttons to correspond with their favorite channels so that watching TV is a hassle-free experience.
A Calm and Comforting Environment
The experts we spoke with included many tips for making the home more calming and comfortable for those living with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Below is a compilation of those suggestions:
- Indoor plants: Some indoor greenery can provide access to nature without leaving the home. If your loved one has plants, make sure to take on the responsibility of caring for them. It can be hard for memory-impaired individuals to remember a fixed watering schedule.
- Choose paints wisely: Some paint colors can be more relaxing and soothing than others. For example, green and blue can evoke feelings of nature, and red can be agitating.
- Be mindful of the blinds: Individuals with dementia may also have ocular issues, so keeping curtains and blinds open can help them see during the day. Make sure there are plenty of light sources around the home.
- Remove mirrors: Some patients with dementia don’t recognize themselves in the mirror, which can be a disorienting or aggravating experience.
Supporting Caregivers and Family Members
Many caregivers spend time watching TV or movies with their loved ones. Having a comfortable seating area with plenty of pillows can make this a cozy space. Keep a chest with blankets for the colder months.
Caregivers who also live in the home should use locks to keep personal belongings. The goal is to minimize any possible source of confusion.
It can also be helpful for caregivers to create a system for medical records, insurance claims, and other important documents. If you’re also managing the person’s finances, you should find a filing system that works for you.
Organizations That Provide Assistance for People With Alzheimer’s and Dementia
The following are national organizations that offer support to people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as their caregivers.
The Alzheimer’s Association raises money for Alzheimer’s research and lobbies for more government support. It also offers a free, 24/7 helpline (800-272-3900) to help individuals and families navigate disease-related challenges and connect them to local services and support.
Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America supports both Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers with a variety of services and resources. Caregivers can speak with a licensed social worker for free, seven days a week. The foundation’s virtual “Teal Room” offers free classes that caregivers and patients can participate in together, including music, fitness, dance, and art.
Caregiver Action Network
The Caregiver Action Network is an organization that supports caregivers. It has many resources to help caregivers manage their responsibilities, including organizational tips and checklists.
Dementia Society of America
The Dementia Society of America provides help to those with dementia by sponsoring events at local nursing and assisted living homes. It also offers a free cognitive screening if you’re worried that a loved one has dementia.
Dementia Spring Foundation
The Dementia Spring Foundation offers art therapy for those living with dementia. It also provides caregivers who are supporting someone with dementia with art supplies so they can participate in art therapy together. The organization also sponsors artists who produce works related to the theme of dementia.
Lewy Body Dementia Association
As the second-most common kind of dementia, Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) is less well-known than Alzheimer’s, but it can be just as devastating. The Lewy Body Dementia Association provides free support groups to families and caregivers of LBD patients.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a list of services for veterans with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The VA also provides a list of resources for any caregivers or family members—veteran status or not.
It’s possible to care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients at home, as long as the right home modifications and improvements are in place to ensure their safety and comfort. However, modifications likely won’t be a one-and-done process. “Keeping the home environment safe for people living with dementia should be viewed as a fluid process—one that will require escalating strategies as the disease progresses,” says Moreno.
We recommend implementing the relevant expert tips in our guide and consulting with the medical professionals caring for your loved one to develop a home modification plan that works best for your home.
Eugenia Welch: Eugenia Welch has been volunteering with people living with dementia since she was 16. She turned that passion into a career and spent nearly 25 years as the executive director at two different assisted living and memory care communities in California before joining Alzheimer’s San Diego. During her tenure in the senior living industry, Welch was named Executive Director of the Year by the California Assisted Living Association. Her ultimate goal is that organizations like Alzheimer’s San Diego someday become irrelevant, thanks to the discovery of an effective treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s.
Leah Daly: Leah Daly, MPH, CHES, is the education program manager at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. In this role, she helps design, evaluate, and facilitate training regarding Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Daly has been working in community education and mobilization for nearly a decade and currently works on behalf of individuals with dementia and their care teams. Her goal is to make individuals and communities safer, healthier, and more fulfilled through effective, compelling, and fun programming and training.
Linda Mockler: Linda Mockler, LMSW, M.Ed, has been working in the field of aging for more than a decade. She currently serves as a senior social worker at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.
Lori Nisson: Lori Nisson, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and the family and community services director at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and Banner Sun Health Research Institute. She has spent more than 20 years specializing in leadership and clinical positions, serving the needs of patients and families coping with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral problems. Nisson serves in many other positions as well, including as an adjunct faculty at Arizona State University: Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation; she is also involved with the Arizona Dementia Caregiver Alliance, the Milken Institute Alliance to Improve Dementia Care, and the Arizona End-of-Life Care Partnership.
Monica Moreno: Monica Moreno is a senior director of care and support at The Alzheimer’s Association. The Alzheimer’s Association leads the way to end Alzheimer’s and all other dementia by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support.
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