By Sophie Okolo

Picture a scenario.

A few years prior, you were diagnosed with dementia. It came as a shock to your friends and family, but most especially to you. Life wouldn’t be the same anymore. As years have passed, your family has made the difficult decision for you to live in a memory care community.

But let’s say you had the power to make that decision beforehand. What would you choose? Would you choose the community you currently work in? Or would you secretly hope that your family would make a tough decision to care for you because you don’t like the current state of memory care?

These are the questions I asked myself today.

It Started With a Personal Experience

My quest for a new model of memory care communities started when my siblings and I became primary caregivers for our grandmother. Grandma, as she’s affectionately called, lived with us, and while she didn’t suffer from any cognitive impairment, providing care wasn’t always smooth sailing. It required communication; trust; sacrifice; delegation of duties; and, most importantly, seeing that everyone felt seen, heard, and valued.

How can senior living professionals translate this to communities that are not full of our family members or loved ones?

A New Way of Thinking About Memory Care

Several years ago, I watched a CNN documentary hosted by Sanjay Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon and journalist. It showed Dr. Gupta visiting Hogewey, a small village in Weesp, Netherlands, where every resident has severe dementia.

It’s remarkable to see because Hogewey gives people with dementia a chance to live a normal life and gain back a part of the independence they have lost. They have freedom (to an extent), and yes, they are being monitored.

The consensus is that it’s 100 times better than the average nursing home in the U.S. Why? Because it’s better than sitting in a room with, let’s say, nine other residents watching TV.

I wonder how many of us envision that for ourselves, especially if suffering from severe cognitive impairment. We would certainly want better, from getting regular visits and feeling comfortable to doing stimulating activities and having dignity.

It’s time we put ourselves in our residents’ shoes for once.

If Leadership Wanted, They Could Make These Changes

As a self-proclaimed serial volunteer and former activity assistant, my experience in memory care has been life-changing and a learning experience. When I get to know residents on a deeper level, I often think of them and ways to improve their everyday quality of life. Because ultimately, our communities should not resemble hospitals (although I also think some hospitals need a facelift). Memory care is what some of our loved ones call home, and home is what it needs to feel like.

Here are just two ways to revamp memory care:

Enhance the environment. Invest in enhancing the built environment. We know art is a meaningful (and beautiful) way to help residents navigate their physical space. So how about working with an interior design firm to provide vibrant images that complement the building design and help stimulate residents’ senses? It’s not just about decoration; the artwork must also serve a purpose. Think of art pieces that not only fit with our aesthetic but that are also easy for residents to recognize, and engage with, in the space. Imagine a community having images of their residents’ favorite places, hobbies, etc.

Train ALL staff. We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t train staff to understand the signs of dementia. Well-trained staff can help identify and tackle stressors to reduce most behaviors and issues. How about providing staff with incentivized training in dementia and aging to help better the lives of residents? More and more of our communities should be doing this to improve quality of life.

Changing Minds Is What Matters in the End

Ultimately, our collective humanity matters, and senior living must prepare for us ALL to have dignity in our older years. Perhaps it should start with appreciating older adults and not only putting profits before people. This way, our communities can become less stressful and more fulfilling, and feel like home.