Earlier this year, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published their first practice note on how good planning can play a stronger role in the creation of better environments for people living with dementia.
Living with dementia
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are currently around 850,000 people living with some form of dementia in the UK. Although the risk of developing dementia increases with age, it is not just a disease of the elderly. There are currently around 40,000 people with dementia in the UK under the age of 65.
The vast majority of cases of dementia cannot be cured. However, there is a lot that can be done to enable someone with dementia to live well with the condition. Many people with dementia can continue lead active, healthy lives for years after diagnosis. Even most elderly people with mild to moderate dementia can continue to live in their own homes.
The importance of good urban design
Evidence has shown that well-planned, enabling environments can have a substantial impact on the quality of life of someone living with dementia and their ability to retain their independence for longer.
For example, being within easy walking distance of shops and other local amenities can help people with dementia to remain physically active and encourages social interaction.
Having access to green space and nature also has particular benefits, including better mood, memory and communication and improved concentration.
Key characteristics of a dementia-friendly environment
Drawing on the principles set out in ‘Neighbourhoods for Life’, the RTPI advises that urban environments should be:
- Familiar – functions of places and buildings made obvious, any changes are small scale and incremental;
- Legible – a hierarchy of street types, which are short and fairly narrow. Clear signage;
- Distinctive – including a variety of landmarks and a variety of practical features, e.g. trees and street furniture;
- Accessible – access to amenities such as shops, doctor’s, post offices and banks within easy, safe and comfortable walking distances (5-10 minutes). Obvious, easy to use entrances that conform to disabled access regulations;
- Comfortable – open space is well defined with public toilets, seating, shelter and good lighting. Background and traffic noise minimised through planting and fencing. Minimal street clutter;
- Safe – wide, flat and non-slip footpaths, avoid creating dark shadows or bright glare.
In addition to specific guidance on how to improve the urban environment, the RTPI practice note also highlights the crucial role of planners in the creation of ‘Dementia Friendly Communities’.
This is a recognition process, which publicly acknowledges communities for their work towards becoming dementia friendly. It aims to involve the entire community, from local authorities and health boards to local shops, in the creation of communities that support the needs of people with dementia.
There are 10 key areas of focus. Those particularly relevant to planning include:
- shaping communities around the needs and aspirations of people with dementia;
- the provision of accessible community activities;
- supporting people to live in their own home for longer;
- the provision of consistent and reliable transport options; and
- ensuring the physical environment is accessible and easy to navigate.
There are currently over 200 communities across the UK working towards recognition as dementia-friendly. Dementia Friendly East Lothian and the Dementia Friendly Kirriemuir Project are two such examples.
Local government policy
By 2025, it is estimated that the number of people diagnosed with dementia will rise to over one million. Significant under diagnosis means that the number of people who experience dementia may be even higher.
However, the RTPI report that at present few local authorities have made explicit reference to dementia in their adopted local plans.
Worcestershire County Council and Plymouth City Council are notable exceptions:
- Plymouth have set out their ambition to become a ‘dementia friendly city’ in its current local plan; and
- Worcestershire are currently developing a draft Planning for Health Supplementary Planning Document that covers age-friendly environments and dementia.
A beneficial environment for all
While these are important first steps towards the greater recognition of the role of planning in supporting people with dementia, it is imperative that planning explicitly for dementia becomes the rule, rather than the exception.
Not only will this benefit people with dementia and reduce healthcare costs, it may also benefit the wider community, including young families, people with disabilities, and older people.
As the RTPI rightly state, “environments that are easy for people to access, understand, use and enjoy are beneficial to everyone, not just older people with dementia.”
Enjoy this? You may be interested in our other blogs on related topics:
- “All it takes is one song to bring back 1,000 memories”: using music therapy in dementia care
- Assistive digital technology and older people: technology “bricolage” in dementia care
- Dementia’s impact on those who care
- Planning for later life … where does retirement housing fit in strategic planning?
- Planning for an ageing population: designing age-friendly environments
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