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A Dining Experience That Aids The Elderly Suffering Dementia

The basic actions of eating and drinking are delivered with more dignity, helping people with dementia cope with other aspects of their lives.

Gregor Timlin had spent seven years witnessing the effects of dementia as his father battled cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and he wanted to find a simple way to improve the lives of those living with dementia. So he focused on the one place that residents went three times a day: The dining room.

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Due to difficulties eating, 25% of people in assisted living were undernourished.

Over two years Timlin, a recent graduate of the masters program at the Royal College of Art in London, estimates he spent 28 days in assisted living homes, where the dining experience for elderly residents fell disappointingly short. Most dining rooms in assisted care facilities were outfitted with off-the-shelf furniture and tableware that’s made for healthy adults. This was not only an inconvenience, it was a health risk: Timlin discovered that due to difficulties eating, 25% of people in assisted living were undernourished. Restoring a sense of dignity and normalcy to the dinner table became a priority for Timlin, who decided to focus on two specific areas: Tableware which can help provide behavioral cues for eating, and architectural features for the dining room that help compensate for more physical disabilities.

People living with dementia often exhibit a range of abilities — there’s no one set of specific symptoms. So Timlin organized his design solutions into three groups: low, medium and high assistance. A low assistance cup and plate uses colored elements to help food stand out on the plate, and the plate itself contrast with the table. A medium assistance plate has a high lip that can help people with limited movement push the food onto their spoon. A medium assistance cup is insulated and features large handles that can be easily grasped with both hands, making for an easier grip. The high assistance plate is made for caregivers to feed residents, yet still allows the resident some sense of dignity.

Restoring a sense of normalcy to the dinner table became a priority.

The design of the dining room was also important to Timlin. He envisioned a drastically redesigned dining space, with a layout that created more interaction between residents. Elements like a patio, garden with raised beds, and an eat-in kitchen could allow residents to dine in a variety of environments to stimulate their senses and may even allow them to play some role in the preparation of their food. Taller, almost bar-height tables provide places for residents to lean against, giving them more independence. Timlin also designed a table which is not only high enough to accommodate a wheelchair, but also incorporates a flat underside which allows residents to move closer to their food, preventing embarrassing spills. Lights which sit upon each table can be adjusted and brightened to aid people with more deteriorating vision.

These changes create major impact beyond just improving the functionality around the physical act of eating. The places we eat often provide the most positive social interactions in our homes. Making the dining room the best-designed space in the building gives residents a place they’ll look forward to going, and they may even be able to remember it more due to the pleasant experience they have there.

Timlin’s project, Eating, Design and Dementia, is a finalist for the INDEX Award, and Timlin himself has gone on to work at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, where he’s currently working on a project that maps the various needs for people living with dementia so assisted living buildings and services can be redesigned for better usability.

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.

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