Senior Living Merges Tech with 5 Senses

Communities for older residents are finding creative ways to incorporate technology. Dean Maddalena, president of Texas-based studioSIX5, explains the benefits of providing these properties with the latest devices.

Technology has slowly permeated through almost all of our daily activities. We can hardly imagine ourselves living in a world without Wi-Fi, tablets, fitness trackers or smartphones. And with artificial intelligence and robots at our doorstep, we can only speculate about how much technology will influence our lives in the years to come. But when tech seamlessly blends with design and human needs, that creates an inspired environment. Dean Maddalena, president of interior design firm studioSIX5, is a strong advocate of using technology in senior living communities, especially in residences and areas catering to those in need of assisted living, memory care, or skilled nursing.

Living with memory impairments used to mean settling in institutionalized settings similar to hospitals and spaces with fluorescent lighting where residents couldn’t hurt themselves. These spaces provided absolutely no friendliness or familiarity to anything they lived in or around before. The transition from memory care units with locked doors that keep residents “safe” ended a time ago.

Stimulating the five senses

The tremendous evolution of technology has been benefiting more and more memory-impaired people. “Advancements in technology provide greater quality of life by engaging the residents’ five senses in unique ways and by keeping them safe. We recommend small neighborhoods that provide a calming, non-agitating environment. We prefer designs that engage all the senses in one way or another, because each resident is unique. From incorporating human-scale, interactive artwork, to visual projectors that display art or movies on walls or in unique viewing areas, to technologically enhanced furniture, there are a variety of ways to engage the five senses. We look at things that don’t have technology in them and ask what technological advance can we incorporate that could make this product better,” Maddalena told Multi-Housing News.  

Designers of senior living communities must be aware of how residents will interact with each space and the items that surround them. The environment should not only keep them safe by tracking their whereabouts or alerting staff in case of need, but it should also make them feel like they’re home.

Latest technological advances

Maddalena and his studioSIX5 team are constantly searching for and experimenting the applicability of new products, but also researching fresh ideas and creating products of their own to deliver hospitality design within intimate spaces. One of their latest product for memory care housing is an LED electronic memory box located on the wall outside of each resident’s door. With the size of a standard tablet and enclosed in a frame, they can shuffle through different images and be updated easily. The first community to implement these frames was Tribute at Heritage Village in Gainesville, Va. Nowadays, all Tribute communities have them.

“Products like our LED digital memory boxes present opportunities for engagement by providing familiar images or images of things the resident likes, such as dogs or sports cars. This helps with room recognition. Staff can monitor reactions to different images to see what elicits positive reactions. It can provide a platform for playing games, practicing memory exercises and doing other brain teasers,” said Maddalena.

LED lighting can also be used to support circadian rhythms by changing the color temperature of the lighting to match the time of day. Some communities even use 3D goggles in memory care quiet rooms to help calm agitated residents with comforting or familiar scenes. While trying to stimulate hearing, studioSIX5 came up with a music therapy chair—a piece of furniture with built-in ports and speakers. 

Artwork is another component that engages some of the five senses. Deeply-rooted connections with colors, shapes and textures stem from previous experiences and can lead to cognitive recollection for those living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. For example, The Ridge in Salt Lake City has a large, interactive xylophone on the wall for residents to touch and play music on, but it also serves as art. studioSIX5 recommends that communities avoid heavily contrasted decor and refrain from using reds and yellows, which can be agitating. However, slight contrast sets things apart. For instance, a brown chair on a brown floor might make residents hesitate to sit down as the chair would be harder for them to see. Instead, a light blue chair on a brown floor is easily tracked and appears welcoming. Color plays a huge part in how these individuals interact within the space. The sense of smell can be easily stimulated by building separate kitchens in memory care communities.

Cost vs. benefit

studioSIX5 clients have reported that the use of LED lighting results in improved sleeping habits and reduced “sundowning” for their residents. Products like the frame digital memory boxes are becoming more and more popular. Caregivers and families are able to change the images with ease and see what residents react positively to.

“In addition to gathering feedback and conducting our own mock areas, we observe residents interacting in spaces we have designed. Staying alert on current trends, both in the senior living industry and technology field, keeps our minds thinking about ways we could take some new technological device and fuse it into the design of products and spaces for memory care communities,” Maddalena added.

Although some tech features do cost more, thoughtful design provides enhanced value and does not necessarily mean higher construction or upkeep expenses. Senior communities will need to keep up with the fast pace of technology advancement. Investment in this type of community will grow, as technology will become more and more accessible. “Think of the impact and promise of artificial intelligence or robots. We need to build in flexibility to easily adapt to future discoveries and resident needs,” Maddalena concluded.

Images courtesy of The Ridge Salt Lake City, studioSIX5 & Alan Blakely