A good sound environment - quality living for people with memory disorders
The number of people with memory disorders is estimated to almost double in the next 30 years. An accessible listening environment, and good acoustics, support the everyday life and independence of people with memory disorders.
The SOTERA research group of Aalto University's Department of Architecture, together with government actors, municipalities, and companies, is looking for new solutions for housing people with memory disorders. The project is named the MonIA project (Flexible Housing Solutions for People Suffering of Memory Disorders). The central research questions of the project are:
- How can design work address the effects on hearing caused by memory disorders and ageing?
- What is the ideal acoustic environment for memory-friendly and age-friendly housing?
- How can acoustic design promote wellbeing and coping in everyday life in memory-friendly and age-friendly housing?
The background for the project is public health and economic challenges. In its 2019 report, Alzheimer Europe estimates that the number of people with memory disorders in Finland will almost double in the next thirty years. There were approximately 96,000 people with memory disorders in Finland in 2018, and the number is estimated to grow to 172,000 by 2050. Similar figures can be seen in many other countries as well.
Ecophon actively collaborates in research for living and working environments, and as the sound environment was targeted amongst other factors, Ecophon Finland became interested in the project as soon as they heard about it.
“We have been investigating the living environments of people with memory disorders before, and especially their acoustic solutions. The sound environment affects people's wellbeing significantly. In the MonIA project, this aspect comes to the fore as an important factor along with other solutions that support the lives of people with memory problems”, states Jyrki Kilpikari, Concept Developer of Healthcare facilities at Ecophon.
Many existing assisted living units have large, reverberant, and noisy dining and common areas. These conditions can cause fear or anxiety.
The goal is communal, diverse and inclusive housing solutions
The MonIA project is led by Aalto University professor Laura Arpiainen. Her specialty is an architecture that supports health and wellbeing. Senior Scientist Ira Verma has been involved in projects related to serviced housing for a long time and she also acts as the thesis advisor of Viivi Salminen, who did her master’s thesis in the MonIA project.
“In Finland, the number of aged citizens increases, and the national service structure changes at the same time which makes the development of memory- and age-friendly planning even more important. In housing for people with these disorders, the sound environment and the ability to adjust the number of stimuli is important factors. Functions related to hearing and concentration in particular require damping of background noise”, says Ira Verma.
There is a clear need for functional and resident-oriented space planning
According to Verma new housing solutions are needed because in the current facilities living with a memory disorder can be challenging.
“Many existing assisted living units have large, reverberant, and noisy dining and common areas. These conditions can cause fear or anxiety. The facilities should be designed so that they can be divided into smaller areas depending on the activity. The possibility to retreat to one's own peace from time to time reduces the restlessness of the residents.”
Building materials, such as sound-absorbing ceilings and wall panels, as well as interior design, can also influence the sound environment.
“In many cases, the housing units of the elderly are very minimalistic in their interior design: carpets, soft sofas, pillows, and decorative items have been removed either for safety or cleanliness reasons. However, these influence the coziness of the premises and the sound environment”, Verma points out.
Help to plan memory-friendly sound environments
The main goal of architect Viivi Salminen’s "Acoustic design in memory-friendly living" master thesis was to develop, based on existing data, guidelines for implementing a sound environment that supports the living and wellbeing of people with memory disorders. The goal is also to bring a more human-oriented perspective to acoustic design. To consider the role of the living environment as part of treatment, and to identify the special features and needs in order to develop a memory-friendly environment. In this work, a memory- and age-friendly living environment means a barrier-free, easy-to-use, and understandable environment.
“The settings and guidelines governing the design of sound environments have not considered people with memory disorders. And on the other hand, design guides for environments for people with these disorders rarely deal with the acoustics of spaces. The guide provides compiled information on the design of the sound environment for memory disorders, as well as highlights the importance of sound design as part of memory-friendly environments. In addition, it provides a good base for practical implementation, through which even more effective recommendations and buildings can be modified”, Salminen states.
The sound environment plays a particularly important role in supporting social situations, as memory disorders often present challenges in understanding and maintaining conversations.
The sound environment plays a significant role in promoting wellbeing
According to Salminen, the quality of the sound environment is determined by traditional acoustic measurements. But the design based on them does not, however, guarantee a comfortable sound environment: especially for a person with memory problems.
“Less attention has been paid to the fact that a good sound environment consists of more than sound attenuation. It is also related to how the sound environment is ultimately experienced. In my opinion, a good sound environment for memory disorder is barrier-free, familiar, sensory-friendly, and considerate of the space's functions and its users.”
When the sound environment is considered in the architectural planning from the beginning of the project, the end result will be a more versatile and balanced room experience.
“The sensory and sound environment has a huge impact on the wellbeing and everyday life of a person with memory loss. The sound environment plays a particularly important role in supporting social situations, as memory disorders often present challenges in understanding and maintaining conversations. Studies have also found that the good design of the sound environment affects the quality of life of memory disorders. It improves the quality of sleep and reduces restlessness, anxiety, and behavioral symptoms. It can lower the use of psychotropic drugs and finally also reduce the stress levels for both residents and staff”, Salminen sums up.
Top picture: JD Mason, Unsplash
The purpose of the MonIA project led by Aalto University's Social and Health Construction Research Group (SOTERA) is to research and design new flexible housing solutions between living at home and enhanced service housing. The goal is to support community-based, diverse and inclusive solutions and to reduce the social isolation of elderly people with mild dementia. In addition to Aalto University, the Ministry of the Environment is involved in the project; Housing Finance and Development Center ARA; the cities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Pori, Porvoo and Kirkkonummi; HEKA Oy; Yrjö and Hanna Kodit and Saint-Gobain Finland Oy / Ecophon.