Urban design to support the disoriented

Social Sciences

- Amanda Farrell-Low

You may have heard of care facilities designed specifically for people with dementia; they have features such as circular walkways, colour-coded areas that help people recognize where they are, or simple signs hung at eye level. But what if we started taking the needs of people with dementia into consideration when we designed a new park or a city street? These were questions Maria Przydatek explored as part of her masters thesis on dementia-friendly urban planning.

The idea for her thesis first came to her during a class with Dr. Trevor Hancock on supportive environments and healthy public policy. “I was just really drawn to the idea of the environment and how much it impacts our mental, emotional and physical well-being. Because dementia is the main focus of my work, I started wondering, ‘Have connections been made with this?’“ says Przydatek. “I began to realize there were opportunities to add to that body of work, because it’s relatively new.”

And Przydatek certainly has added. Through a review of existing policies, conversations with urban planners on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, and a review of some core elements of dementia-friendly design, Przydatek’s master’s research helped her draw up recommendations municipalities should consider when it comes to making public places more accessible for people with dementia.

“I think that making modifications to the built environment offers a broader range of support, rather than just individualized programs targeting a particular lifestyle choice or behaviour,” she says of the importance of applying this work in public spaces. “They can offer benefits for a lot of other people with different impairments.”

Przydatek says that certain things such as clear legible signage or smooth, wide sidewalks are good for everyone, not just people with dementia, but we must remember that these features that are good for everyone may be essential for others. The aging population is not a homogeneous group, and including specific considerations for people living with dementia will not only have benefits for all, but will make sure that planners do not overlook people with both mental and physical impairments who require these features to get around safely.

Furthermore, every one of us may experience some forgetfulness and disorientation at times, yet not be diagnosed with dementia. A dementia-friendly environment can thus benefit a wider population with design that aids navigation and comfort.

Przydatek graduates from the Social Dimensions of Health program, with Dr. Neena Chappell from the Department of Sociology and Dr. Joan Wharf-Higgins of the School of Exercise Science, Physical and Health Education supervising her work. She says the interdisciplinary aspect of that program was a great way to respond to the complicated real-world situations in public health—and a huge asset to her research.

“I really appreciated being connected to various researchers across campus,” says Pryzdatek. “It was really valuable to reflect on various perspectives and that allowed me to think more critically about best approaches to research questions and how that research might add value to a field of study.”

Not surprisingly, Przydatek’s research has led her to the Alzheimer’s Society of BC, where she’s now working as a research analyst. She’s continuing where she left off with her master’s degree, working to provide tools municipalities can use to make their communities friendlier for people with dementia. She says a presentation by the society’s CEO, Maria Howard, at this September’s Union of BC Municipalities meeting has led to several communities expressing interest in the work.

“I’m excited to be at the society,” she says. “It’s really neat to see your master’s work develop into something bigger and be a part of that.”


In this story

Keywords: dementia, aging

People: Maria Przydatek, Neena Chappell, Joan Wharf-Higgins

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