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What I Learned About Moving a Loved One to a Retirement Home

22 Aug 2017

There are plenty of cheerful quips and sage words for those facing old age. They are urged to “stay young at heart” and “age gracefully,” and are told that “80 is the new 60.” On the one hand, women’s rights activist Betty Friedan suggested that “aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” On the other hand, actress Bette Davis wryly noted that old age isn’t for sissies. As I see my once active and fun-loving mother-in-law struggle to manage her own safety and well-being, I think I’m with Davis.

Val will soon move to an aged-care village, and the family is working toward a hopefully smooth transition from self-reliance to dependency. I gladly agreed to oversee furnishing her future home, a one-bedroom unit in the complex. This story shares what I learned about decorating for those needing help with the challenges of growing old.

Change your perspective. It’s easy when decorating for someone else to assume they’ll like what you like. I had to step into the shoes of this beautiful 92-year-old woman, still mobile but with some health complications and perceptual difficulties.

What I did: I thought about Val — her early life, personality, relationships, what she liked to do, how she might react to her new home. She’s familiar with a different era of design than I am, and trendy modern decor would mean very little to her. I wanted to create a functional, safe and serene place she could call home.

This is a work in progress, as Val’s unit isn’t available yet.
Choose colors for comfort and personality. Emotional responses to colors significantly affect our mood and comfort. In the elderly, they also aid with navigation and orientation.

What I did: I talked to The Colour Agency’s Jacquelene Symond, an interior designer who has studied color psychology and worked with an eldercare agency. Take grayish colors out of the picture, she advises. “You can still use blues and soft colors, but in clearer, more distinct tones. Greens with a yellow tinge work well. Contrasts are important in differentiating items, but lots of stark white is hard on eyes and increases production of cortisol, the stress hormone.”

Symond stresses the importance of considering the person you are designing for and, if possible, involving him or her in the choices. Val is a gentle soul whose palette is pinks, pastels, pale lavenders and blues. To avoid low-contrast, washed-out colors, I compromised by boosting the mood with warm, sunny peach and fresh, cool turquoise accents.

Double-check dimensions. Overall area and room dimensions affect furniture size, style and placement, as well as color and pattern choices and how functions fit into a space. Doors, windows and power outlets also dictate furniture layout.

What I did: I drew up a floor plan and took it shopping. The unit’s total area is about 205 square feet (19 square meters), with a small terrace off the bedroom and living space, a bathroom and a kitchenette. I needed compact furniture and only pieces that were absolutely necessary, to keep the traffic paths between rooms and to the outside open.

Prioritize important furniture. Deciding on what Val would use most was easy. She’s an avid reader and a bit of a couch potato, so I put a chunk of my budget into a quality sofa. Upright sofas with wooden arms were out; curves and comfort were in.

What I did: Their joints protest when the elderly hoist themselves up from a deep, squishy sofa or perch on a too-firm seat. I chose this 2½-seater Tivoli sofa which straddles the line between modern and traditional, and had it custom-upholstered for a quieter look. It features rolled arms, high back cushions and a supportive high-density filling. The Paris wing chair — with rolled arms, a high headrest and generous cushioning — has tidy proportions and a style that’s consistent with the sofa.

Both pieces were upholstered in a textural, neutral fabric. A splurge item, a leather ottoman, doubles as a footstool and a tea tray holder.

Steal space. The bedroom was a challenge, at just 9½ feet (2.9 meters) wide and with limited wall space. It was essential to maximize open space to make nighttime trips to the bathroom as safe as possible.

What I did: Changing from a queen bed to a double one bought precious space. Having just one bedside table with roomy storage leaves access to the bathroom clear.

Round the corners. A sofa doesn’t always need a coffee table. In this case, one would narrow access to the terrace. I found curvy wooden nesting tables that are light and easy to move, and the kidney shape tucks neatly up against furniture corners.

Sharp corners and glass are hazards. Everything going into Val’s home is rounded and curved. If angular furniture is used, plastic corner shields protect sharp edges.

Cater to habits. Personal routines are important for the elderly, helping them maintain a sense of order and control in their daily lives.

What I did: Pretty and feminine at 92, Val wanted a dressing table and chair so that she could sit and put on her makeup. A chair with a padded seat and back support tucks snugly below.

Enhance teatime. Although the complex has a pleasant, social dining room, an inviting dining setting would come in handy for visiting guests and family.

What I did: Again, I went for curves, not angles, with a neat table with rounded corners against a wall. Stable padded chairs with legs within the seat profile, easily moved out from the table, are essential. Ensure that the tabletop contrasts with the floor and the chairs, to aid depth perception. A bright cloth helps clarify edges.

Make an entrance. Every home, no matter how small, should have a welcoming entrance with a place to drop keys, sunglasses, bags and shopping.

What I did: The entry hall is fairly tight, but a narrow console with a drawer is enough to hold some pretty objects — flowers and a couple of framed family photos. It still allows wheelchair access if it becomes necessary.

Pay attention to the light. Of all design factors, lighting has the greatest impact on well-being. It aids orientation, navigation and good mood, and can prevent falls. Older people need three times as much light as younger ones to perceive true colors, and they are hypersensitive to glare. A combination of natural and artificial light, indirect glare-free general light, and task lighting is desirable — but avoid flickering fluorescent bulbs.

What I did: I boosted existing overhead lighting with easy to-operate lamps and warm white light output. The unit receives plenty of daylight, so lacy sheers filter it without darkening the room.

Reconsider rugs. Val had already fallen a couple of times in her previous home, so I was keen to exclude anything that might cause another one.

What I did: I was reluctant to give up the acoustic benefits and homey textural qualities of a foot-friendly rug. However, a darker rug on a light carpet may be perceived as an alarming hole and is a potential tripping danger, so rugs and mats unfortunately were out.

Hang meaningful artwork. Abstract art in vivid, clashing colors isn’t optically comfortable. Artwork that represents reality — a country or garden scene, people, flowers and animals — will have more meaning and may generate pleasant thoughts.

What I did: I always associate Val with pretty flowers, and she’s an inveterate bird feeder. I picked canvas prints with butterflies, birds and beautiful blooms in clear blues, pinks, peaches and greens. We’ve often vacationed together at the beach, so a beach scene was a must.

Use patterns with care. Big, busy patterns such as wide stripes and zigzagging geometrics may create perplexing optical illusions. Dark spots and circles are a particular problem since they can resemble holes or dirty marks to aging eyes and less-than-acute senses.

What I did: I kept patterns to a minimum and used them where they would visually define items and areas. I’m thinking a touch of gingham or paisley would add a familiar element.

Pile on textures. Touch is a strong sensory influence for the elderly, especially with fading vision and borderline dementia. It aids with recognizing items, negotiating furniture and stimulating memories.

What I did: I contrasted soft pure wool and fleecy throws for the sofa, armchair and bed, velvety cushions, embroidered fabrics and tactile linen with supple leather, crisp cottons and smooth wooden surfaces.

Include memory triggers. A completely unfamiliar environment can be daunting, and not only for the elderly. I was a little concerned that the unit would look too different from Val’s previous home, but I felt that her existing furniture would create space issues in the unit.

What I did: I selected small recognizable items with personal significance to keep clutter to a minimum. I made a collage of family photos and framed some for prominent spots in the entrance, bedroom and living space. A family photo on Val’s door will help her identify her home.

Val has a collection of pretty old-fashioned china — she’s from the era when tea was sipped from delicate bone china cups with saucers. Some will find a place in the kitchenette handy to tea-making equipment, and some will brighten up a sideboard.

Connect with nature. A 2016 Natural England commissioned report titled Is It Nice Outside? lists the many benefits of engagement with nature during various stages of dementia. These include a more positive emotional state, less stress, reduced agitation and apathy, and better sleep, appetite, attention, awareness and sense of belonging.

What I did: Placing furniture with maximum exposure to the outdoors helps prevent a feeling of isolation that can depress elderly people. The terrace off the living area will be a mini garden of familiar old-world plants, with some indoors too. Small tasks such as nurturing plants generate a sense of purpose and usefulness.

Don’t forget sounds. The acoustic environment affects how we function. People with aging senses need to comprehend it by clearly identifying sounds and their sources. It’s essential to reduce uncomfortable noises and auditory clutter.

What I did: Plenty of soft surfaces and fabrics absorb sound. I’ve also ensured that music will be part of Val’s day, with a radio with manual controls (digital controls cause confusion in older age groups).

Offer subtle scents. Although overstimulation is distressing, gentle sensory reminders can have positive effects. The right scent is a powerful tool for triggering past experiences.

What I did: The final touch — and a pleasant task — was to find ways to scent Val’s new home. Naked candle flames and aerosol room sprays were out, so I went sniffing for reed diffusers. I chose subtle old-fashioned florals, gardenia and wild jasmine with a hint of mint. I hope they’ll spark comforting memories of Val’s younger days and flowers that she loved.