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Dealing with dementia – a role for us all

Sarah Lewis, MRTPI,

Planning Practice Officer,

Royal Town Planning Institute

There are currently 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK. This is set to increase to 1 million by 2021 and 2 million by 2051. The estimated cost of the disease for the UK economy is £26 billion a year, with an estimated 25 percent of all hospital beds occupied by people with dementia in 2013, according to Alzheimer’s Society. These stark statistics demonstrate the impact of dementia on the countries health and social care systems. But what does it mean for the built environment professions and is there a role for us all to play in combating the effect of the disease and helping people with dementia to live well for longer?

In Dementia and Town Planning, our new practice advice note, the Royal Town Planning Institute highlights the vital role that planning (and extending to other built environment professions) can and should have in creating the enabling local environments that allow people living with dementia to live well for longer.

A survey by Alzheimer’s Society found that 35 percent of people with dementia said they only go out once a week or less and 10 percent said once a month or less, despite evidence showing that staying physically, mentally and socially active can have an impact on the progression of the illness. If housing suitable for older people is located in community hubs within a 5-10 minute walk of local shops and services, this will allow people living with dementia the ability to live well and remain independent for longer. Access to green space and nature has particular benefits for people with dementia.

Key things to look out for are:

  • Familiar environment - functions of places and buildings are obvious, any changes are small scale and incremental;
  • Legible environment - a hierarchy of street types, which are short and fairly narrow. Clear signs at decision points;
  • Distinctive environment - a variety of landmarks, with architectural features in a variety of styles and materials. There is a variety of practical features, e.g. trees and street furniture;
  • Accessible environment - land uses are mixed with shops and services within a 5-10 minute walk from housing. Entrances to places are obvious and easy to use and conform to disabled access regulations;
  • Comfortable environment - open space is well defined with toilets, seating, shelter and good lighting. Background and traffic noise should be minimised through planting and fencing. Street clutter is minimal to not impede walking or distract attention;
  • Safe environment - footpaths are wide, flat and non-slip, development is orientated to avoid creating dark shadows or bright glare.

Our advice has been endorsed by Alzheimer's Society, with their Chief Executive, Jeremy Hughes, saying,

"I encourage all concerned to take the RTPI's useful advice on board and support those with dementia to live the lives they want to."

The types of local environments that work well for people living with dementia also work for all older people, for young disabled people, for families with small children, and ultimately everyone. For this ambition to happen it will require collaborative and innovative thinking between built environment professionals, who can work in partnership with health and social care professionals and really listening and learning from people living with dementia and their carers. Isn’t this something we can all sign up to do, and can we afford not to?

The RTPI is actively involved in the Built Environment Professional Education Project (BEPE), which aims to inspire change and raise the profile of inclusive design amongst professionals and our advice on dementia is just one of the tasks the RTPI has undertaken.

Dementia and Town Planning is free to download from the RTPI website. For more information, please contact sarah.lewis@rtpi.org.uk

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