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Jemma Saunders

Colour Consultant, Crown Paints

Careful colour choice can play a surprisingly significant part in making life easier and safer for people with dementia.

Colour, used with care, can help to improve the lives of people with dementia. An interior colour scheme informed by dementia awareness can reduce the chances of falls and accidents, cut distressing navigation problems, improve accessibility and provide a beautiful and comfortable environment. It can even save money.

Jemma Saunders, in-house Colour Consultant at Crown Paints, works with architects, designers and architectural specifiers to create more dementia-friendly environments in buildings such as care homes and hospitals.

Changes in light responses

Saunders says: “Around 95% of people with dementia in the UK are 65+, when the pupil usually becomes less responsive to changes in light conditions. Thus, older people need more light to see comfortably and are more sensitive to glare or dramatic dark/light changes.”

Colour vision declines, so colours can appear faded and less vibrant. Contrast is less noticeable, which can affect depth perception and increase the risk of falls.

Dementia can create difficulty with depth perception, spatial orientation and judging colour contrast, which may cause disorientation, bumping into things, falls and injuries. Memory problems can also lead to getting lost or disoriented.

Colour considerations

“Choosing appropriate colours for floors, walls, doors and frames, and furnishings can help people with dementia navigate around a space more easily and safely and reduce disorientation and confusion,” says Saunders, who is part of the Crown Paints Colour Service team providing free bespoke and general advice to architects, designers and specifiers working on larger communal projects. Saunders also co-wrote its Interior Colour book, which includes scientifically based advice about colour use in spaces used by people with dementia and autism.

Reduced perception of colour vibrancy means richer, warm tones better suit the ageing eye. Warmer colours such and reds and oranges are more prominent than blue and green hues. If blues are used, brighter blues are better.

Contrasting tones of high-intensity colours can help differentiate walls and floors, highlight doorways (especially to toilets), handrails and furniture. Doors to off-limits areas such as stores can be camouflaged by painting them the same colour as the wall.

Feature walls can be used to highlight a change in direction and are most effective when they contrast tonally at least 20 points with the main wall colour. Contrasting colours can help highlight kitchen surfaces, toilet seats, taps and stairs.

“These kinds of colour schemes can help reduce disorientation, distress and accidents, which as well as leading to injuries, can increase costs for care homes and the NHS,” says Saunders. “Helping people move around more easily can also increase their confidence and sense of wellbeing.” Light levels should be high and signage should be highlighted.

Low-contrast colour schemes, using subtler colours, such as white walls with cream carpets and white paintwork, can make features such as doorways hard to distinguish. Shadows, glare and glossy, highly reflective surfaces can distort spatial boundaries and strong geometric patterns can distort space.

Holistic approach

Colour is only one part of a holistic approach. “It’s not just about paint colours, but also about furnishing materials, maximising natural lighting, plants, and other factors so that all work together to create a cohesive environment,” says Saunders.

“The approach is not limited to communal spaces,” she adds. “These ideas could equally well be used by people in their own homes.”

Meanwhile she says: “I want to increase awareness of the benefits of colour in creating inclusion, by making our colour consultation and specification services more easily available to architects, designers and specifiers. It can be part of their continuous professional development (CPD), while helping them make life easier for millions of people.”

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