What I Learned Using An App To Design A House For Alzheimer’s Patients

When it comes to creating better spaces for those with dementia, many basics of good design hold true.

I’m standing in a ghastly living room of paisley walls, kaleidoscope carpets, and dreary accents. Everything’s beige, like some kid barfed a stomach full of Silly Putty and Pudding Pops all over everything. “No no no,” I say to myself. “This will ever do.” So I tap the walls, strip them of their wallpaper, and paint them white. I tap the floor, digitally wipe away the asbestos wall-to-wall, and replace it with a nice, high-contrast shag. I hang some nice photographs, and put a plant in the corner. Then I survey my work. “Better,” I think. “Martha Stewart would approve.”


She probably wouldn’t, actually–my interior design choices are very basic. But I’m not redecorating this house to get into Better Homes & Gardens. I’m redecorating it to learn about design principles for helping people with dementia through an iPad app, The Dementia-Friendly Home.

Designed by Alzheimer’s Australia, a wing of Alzheimer’s Disease International, The Dementia-Friendly Home is a simple interactive app that guides users through 10 interior design principles that make life easier for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. It works by providing a relatively life-like virtual house to explore; question marks on the floors, ceilings, walls, and household objects indicate interior design choices that can be made, while navigation through the house is accomplished by tapping on a simple floor plan at the bottom left-hand corner. The app is meant to educate caregivers on relatively simple improvements they can make to a home to make it safer, more comfortable, and more grounding to patients with Alzheimer’s. From a non-caregiver perspective, what’s interesting about The Dementia-Friendly Home is where the design principles it espouses for those with dementia intersect with regular good design practice.

Some of the ideas it espouses are obvious. For example, upon entering the kitchen, I find myself confronted by a tea kettle boiling over on the top of a gas range. To turn off the kettle, I need to reach over the spitting tea kettle and leaping flames to twist knobs on the back of the range, which is clearly just terrible design. Instead, I opt to replace the oven with knobs on the front, following one of the most important design principles for the demented and health alike: unobtrusively reduce risks whenever possible.

Other dementia-enabling design principles are less subtle, but fall well within the wheelhouse of contemporary design. Unnecessary visual clash is a no-no in the Dementia-Friendly Home, since it makes it harder for people to be seen and creates unhelpful visual stimulation. So a lot of the interior decorating in the app is done to create unobtrusive areas of high-contrast calmness: white rooms with darker rugs and accents that clearly establish the mood and geometry of any space, supporting movement and making any given room more engaging. The app focuses strongly on tidying up, reducing visual clutter, and tastefully placing objects that provide joy and happy memories throughout the space. Marie Kondo would approve.

It sounds like interior design 101, but that’s the point. Only on issues of safety and memory does The Dementia-Friendly Home’s design principles look completely alien. Few of us, for example, would opt to install handlebars near the toilet, label our cupboards with pictures of what’s inside of them, or replace our light switches with flippers that say “ON” and “OFF” in giant, neon green-and-red letters. But for the most part, what The Dementia-Friendly Home proves is that good interior design is the same whether or not you’re a twenty-something in a Manhattan micro-apartment or a caregiver for an Alzheimer’s patient in a ranch in Nebraska. To a design lover, that’s sort of a comfort, in and of itself.

You can download The Dementia Friendly Home here.