Hearing birds chirp outside.
Smelling fresh flowers from the garden.
Touching a fabric tied to happy memories.
Seeing engaging images like old movies.
Connecting with friends.
Our senses spark memories and encourage us to engage with the world. When we hear our favorite songs, we dance and sing along. When we see people out walking, we stop and say hello. When we feel fresh air on our skin, we take a moment to breathe and relax.
Good design can awaken the senses.
Good design can improve the lives of seniors with dementia, which impacts more than 55 million people worldwide.
Creating enriching spaces that make people feel safe, comfortable and joyful is at the core of what designers do. At HKS, we extend that purpose to design spaces that actively promote brain health and mental well-being.
“Through Citizen HKS, we apply innovative thinking to solve social inequities. Our work with Samaritas is an opportunity to explore how design can improve the lives of those living with dementia.” – Lisa Adams, HKS’ Director of Citizen HKS & Sustainable Design Leader
Senior living organizations have the immense responsibility to provide care and homes for the population most affected by fading mental capacities and memory loss. HKS recently partnered with Samaritas — a social services organization with independent and assisted senior living residences throughout Michigan — to improve the lives of people living with dementia.
Several years of research and pro bono projects have shown us that spaces designed for sensory engagement — spaces that activate senses like touching, hearing smelling — can enhance the well-being of neurodivergent individuals. Multi-sensory spaces can also slow the progression of dementia, and in some cases, prolong the life of elders with the disease. Equipped with this understanding, Citizen HKS and the HKS Research team have teamed to assist Samaritas fulfill its mission to “transform entire communities one life at a time.”
Citizen HKS provided pro bono design services for a respite room at Samaritas’ Grand Rapids location with soft seating and calming sensory objects including a digital nature window, aromatherapy elements and familiar memorabilia. This quiet space uses evidenced-based design strategies to reduce episodes of anxiety and duress for residents with dementia.
We also raised over $50,000 to design and furnish a dynamic engagement room just down the hall. Formerly an under-used library, the space is being transformed into a stimulating destination where residents can partake in activities that spark social engagement and creativity — design strategies that can slow the progression of dementia.
Research Drives Design Impact
HKS is committed to researching and designing for sensory well-being and brain health. Led by Citizen HKS and HKS Research teams, we’ve embarked on partnerships, studies and pro bono design projects to improve how the built environment supports brain functions.
We designed our first Sensory Well-being Hub in 2017 to help neurodiverse high school students recover from sensory stressors and refocus on classroom learning. In addition to designing the Hub pro bono through Citizen HKS, we were able to build it using funds raised by HKS employees and project partners. By studying how students engaged with its interactive art and soundscapes, and calming cocoon structure, we found that many young people — especially those who are neurodivergent or autistic — desired diverse spaces and ways to engage that would make them feel comfortable and safe. Over time, we’ve prototyped new versions of the Hub and made an open-source design guide to share our learnings.
In recent research, we explored how design can aid mental processes and improve social connection among older adults, whose population will double by 2050. With an understanding that adult brains are capable of growing over time and making new neural connections throughout life, we developed a framework for creating Enriched Environments — spaces with design features that encourage motor, somatosensory, social and cognitive processes foster creativity and reduce stress.
“We have learned that enriched sensory environments can improve learning and memory in older adults and promote brain health. We want to leverage design as a powerful ally to care, and an active instrument to stave off cognitive decline.” – Dr. Upali Nanda, HKS’ Global Practice Director, Research
HKS also partnered with The University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth this year on a workplace study to learn strategies to enhance our well-being and productivity. Nearly 200 HKS employees participated in assessments, online trainings, think tanks and brain exercises to optimize their brain health by improving strategic attention, integrated reasoning and innovation abilities. By using the science of brain health to enhance our capacities, we are becoming better equipped to improve the experiences of people who use the spaces we design — including senior living communities.
Last spring, when Samaritas learned from HKS’ Global Practice Director of Research Dr. Upali Nanda and Director of Citizen HKS & Sustainable Design Leader Lisa Adams, that these initiatives and ideas could be brought together to improve the lives of elders, a beautiful partnership began.
Rooms Designed to Awaken the Senses
To provide comfortable living environments for seniors with dementia, Samaritas focuses on individuals, not the disease. By learning about residents’ lives and values, Samaritas staff members create meaningful bonds and offer support they need.
An integrated team of HKS interior designers, senior living architects, and researchers have worked with Samaritas to design two new rooms at Samaritas in Grand Rapids: one that makes residents feel calm and at ease, and one that stimulates activity and social connection.
“These rooms are meaningful to our community because they offer safety and comfort for residents in times of need, especially in moments of overstimulation and stress. They allow us to better support our residents, their family members, and our staff.” – Dayna Roe, Samaritas’ Director of Memory Care
Individuals with dementia often feel restless, confused, or anxious due to overstimulation. Known as “sundowning,” this symptom can be frustrating for those experiencing it and challenging for caregivers. Phase One of the Samaritas project, The Nook, is a calming space designed to relieve the effects of sundowning and other symptoms of dementia that hinder relaxation and peace.
Residents enter the softly lit space through a wall of open bookshelves that provide privacy without fully blocking sight to the rest of the community. Once inside, they can rest on comfortable seats and take in sights of nature displayed on a digital window. They are also able to interact with objects such as apparel items, nostalgic décor, aromatherapy elements, and a virtual window that reflects a calming landscape and the time of day — all intended to de-stimulate, spark fond memories and aid personal restoration by calmly engaging the senses.
The respite room also provides well-being improvements for Samaritas’ hardworking team members. Because senior living workplaces are often challenged by staffing shortages and high levels of stress, relaxing spaces for residents like the respite room mean that caregivers can take a break themselves, resting assured that residents are safe and comfortable.
The Sensory Engagement Room at Samaritas
Dementia frequently leads to isolation, loneliness and disassociation. A lack of brain stimulation can also worsen the effects of the disease. Phase Two of the Samaritas project, The Nest, seeks to provide sensory and social engagement opportunities that can offset disease progression and provide positive experiences for residents.
Designed like a household kitchen and dining area, the room is intended to evoke the feeling of being in “the heart of the home,” and will be furnished with sensory objects that present residents with opportunities to participate in everyday activities. In this space, seniors can see, touch, smell, and hear familiar things that spark positive memories of the past and promote socialization and storytelling.
Located off a main corridor the room has a design that balances the creation of an authentic kitchen environment with the safety and spatial requirements for elder care. Flexible furniture, counter heights and a clear circulation pattern all support accessibility for seniors with mobility concerns and those who use aids such as wheelchairs and walkers.
The multi-sensory and multi-purpose space will include items typically found in family and friends’ homes including plants, cooking accessories and spice jars, photographs, craft items, and a television that will play cooking demonstrations and exercise, storytelling and music videos.
The design team worked to curate a believable environment that feeds sensory cues to the brains of people with a lifetime of experience. A kitchen is an authentically familiar, friendly, relatable environment with positive associations.
- A coat rack with textiles such as hats and jackets provides items for residents to take with them on their way outside to the courtyard.
- Reminiscent of a family home, the space supports intimate and medium-sized gatherings for comfortable social encounters.
- The TV is a digital companion and portal to virtual sensory engagements, showcasing movies as well as artistic, cooking, and exercise videos.
- An interactive chalkboard wall creates a visual cue to enter the spaces and is a spot for creative expression.
- A storage unit impersonates a refrigerator and has a magnetic surface for displaying memorabilia.
- Open shelves with kitchen items spark multi-sensory engagement. Jars of spices securely overlaid with cheese cloth emit smells that may spark memories and cooking tools encourage motor activities.
- Objects placed on lower shelves including flower arranging materials, crafts, and games, are safe and enjoyable for residents. Items on higher shelves such as framed photos, help create a friendly atmosphere but are not for direct engagement.
- A wall grid is great spot for tactile engagement, where residents can display artwork and personal items.
- Interactive activities housed in readily accessible storage containers create a flurry of engagement, much like in a home kitchen.
Help Make This Vision a Reality
Our work with Samaritas demonstrates how outcome-driven design and applied research can work hand-in-hand to improve lives. But sensory well-being goes beyond thoughtful design. It’s a vision for healthier, brighter future for seniors living with dementia, for all neurodivergent people, and for everyone.
The Citizen HKS Donor Advised Fund supports projects that align with our mission to make the world a better place. Your donations help us contribute to creating positive impact through design.