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20th May 2019

Constructing with care for people with dementia

It’s Dementia Action Week, and a good time to talk about what the construction industry can do to support not just the creation of homes and office spaces, but the development of spaces to help people live well in the buildings we create.

I am the Construction Director at Hobson and Porter and one of the things I’m most proud of is our work with Yorkare Homes, constructing specialist care facilities throughout Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. 

Our first project with Yorkare in Cleethorpes, North East Lincolnshire, was probably our most challenging to-date. Unlike some of the new-build facilities we have constructed for our client, the project in Cleethorpes was the conversion and refurbishment of a former school into a 74-bed care home and our first project to include provision for residents living with dementia. It gave us a steep learning curve, not least because the relationship with the client wasn’t solely about specifications and meeting building regulations but also about their expertise in how to best support those living with long-term conditions, including dementia.

The starting point for the project was the same as all the Yorkare projects we have worked on; layout, size of rooms, which features of the original building would be retained or repaired and so on. Over and above that, we were very mindful about the future occupants. We needed to cater for the care home residents, provide nursing facilities and space for the staff, plus specific provision for a unit for people with dementia.

I’m aware that those living with dementia don’t always cope well with change but I’m now also aware of how construction and design can be used to help manage this and support patients. For example, it’s useful to make sure there aren’t too many mirrored surfaces as those with dementia may not recognise themselves. Timber handrails and fixtures, rather than chrome, are preferable for the same reason. Brightly coloured walls without abstract patterns and distinctly different spaces for different activities also help.

It’s also necessary to take extra care to remove all potential trip hazards such as ensuring that level access is truly level, not the usual mm or two tolerances. Striking the balance on security is also critical – there’s a need to ensure ease of access as it’s a home but residents need to stay safe so there need to be things in place to ensure it’s not easy to exit without staff being aware. From the outset on these projects, the emphasis on creating a true home environment is steadfast, whilst integrating the specialist care equipment seamlessly to create a hybrid environment of specialist care and home comfort. 

The other thing we incorporate into all Yorkare Homes is an area designed to stimulate older, longer-term memories with familiar items from younger days. We collaborated closely with the fit-out firm who build an old-fashioned sweetshop into each home along with a space for football memorabilia.

Each home also has a large outside space, another opportunity to provide a positive environment for the residents. Access to outside space is hugely beneficial but the addition of therapeutic elements, designed to provide a sensory experience, stimulating smell and touch, was a learning experience for us.

There are also widely applicable lessons that I’ve learned (I always think it’s a wasted week if I haven’t learned anything new). For example, some of our new housing work has been on bungalows, as there’s a shortage of those in the housing stock in this area. We apply the lessons about level access and avoiding trip hazards, with extra rigorous checks on paving quality, access to the property and internally with doors and all accessways. It should be noted that delivering truly level access to a front entrance went on to teach us more lessons about the use of slot drains – but more learning is good!

Working on these projects really opened my eyes to some of things that we, as an industry, can put into place to assist in day-to-day living. We are just starting on site with our fourth Yorkare project in Hornsea and continuous improvement, technological advancement and lessons-learnt remain the backbone of all these projects - the industry is moving at a rapid pace and as a project team, we simply cannot afford to merely replicate what has gone before. We need to evolve project-by-project to remain at the forefront of specialist care. Later this summer, we will be handing over our third Yorkare build in Hessle and last year we completed Yorkares’ flagship facility at Beverley Parklands. 

I occasionally get asked by contacts in other firms what it’s like working on facilities that will be a home for people with dementia. The one thing I always say is that on a regular project, clients and architects are great but there’s something special about projects like this. Whenever we have cause to go back, the residents are smiling and seem genuinely happy. This gives a sense of satisfaction that you can’t imagine.

I believe that we work in the greatest industry anyone could get into. We live in a world of facts and figures and regulations and specifications, but I tell my staff “you are jetting into someone’s home to help them. Treat them with respect and remember there’s a human effect - seeing people happy in something your team has built is well worth it. This outweighs everything.”

It’s nice to know that we, as an industry, can do that.

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