Good acoustic environment is key to high quality of life for people with memory disorders

It is estimated that the number of people with memory disorders will almost double over the next 30 years. Accessible hearing environments and good acoustics support those with memory disorders in their everyday lives and maintaining their independence.

Research/Case studies Healthcare Living space elderly care

Research group SOTERA from the Department of Architecture at Aalto University is, in collaboration with state operators, municipalities and companies, seeking new accommodation solutions for those with memory disorders through the MonIA project (‘Diverse forms of integrated accommodation for people with memory disorders’). The key research question the project is focused on is: “What accommodation and living environment development solutions are needed to support people with memory disorders in managing their everyday lives and to promote their wellbeing as part of a community?” 

This challenge comes against the backdrop of a national health and economic challenge. In a 2019 report, Alzheimer Europe estimated that the number of people with memory disorders in Finland will almost double in the next 30 years. In 2018, there were approximately 96,000 people with a memory disorder in Finland, and this number is estimated to grow to 172,000 by 2050.

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The acoustic environment has a significant impact on people’s wellbeing. As part of the MonIA project, this perspective is being highlighted as an important factor along with other solutions that support the lives of people with memory disorders.

Ecophon is working actively on research collaboration exploring living and working environments that are acoustically accessible, and was interested in this project as soon as it heard of it.

“We have for some time been investigating the living environments of people with memory disorders and in particular the acoustic solutions for such environments. The acoustic environment has a significant impact on people’s wellbeing. As part of the MonIA project, this perspective is being highlighted as an important factor along with other solutions that support the lives of people with memory disorders,” states Healthcare Concept Developer Jyrki Kilpikari of Ecophon.

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There are changes currently taking place in both the age structure and the service structure of Finnish society, which makes developing memory- and age-friendly planning even more important.

Communal, diverse and inclusive living solutions are the goal

The MonIA project is led by Aalto University’s Professor Laura Arpiainen. Her area of expertise is architecture that supports health and wellbeing. Postdoctoral Researcher Ira Verma has for many years been involved in projects relating to assisted living and is also working on the MonIA project as supervisor of Viivi Salminen’s master’s thesis.

“There are changes currently taking place in both the age structure and the service structure of Finnish society, which makes developing memory- and age-friendly planning even more important. In the settings surrounding those with memory disorders, the acoustic environment and opportunity to adjust the number of stimuli are pivotal factors. Functions relating to hearing and concentrating in particular require absorption of background noise,” states Ira Verma.

Clear need for activity- and resident-oriented interior design

New living solutions are needed, as life in current spaces intended for assisted living can be difficult for those with memory disorders, according to Verma.

“Many existing enhanced assisted living units feature large, echoey, noisy dining and common spaces, where the acoustic environment can cause feelings of fear or anxiety. Spaces should be designed so that they can be divided into smaller areas, depending on the activity. The option to sometimes withdraw to their own, calmer space, reduces residents’ restlessness.”

Construction materials, such as sound-absorbing ceiling solutions and wall panels, as well as furnishings, can influence the soundscape.

“Often, housing units for the elderly are very stripped-back in terms of their interior design: carpets and rugs, soft sofas, cushions and decorative objects have been removed for either safety or cleanliness reasons. However, these items have an impact on how cosy a space feels and its acoustic environment,” Verma notes.

Guidance table helps with the planning of memory-friendly acoustic environments

The primary objective of master’s student in architecture Viivi Salminen’s thesis – ‘Acoustic design in memory-friendly accommodation’ – is to develop instructions on the basis of existing information, for realisation of acoustic environments that support the living and wellbeing of those with memory disorders. Further goals are to produce a more person-centric perspective on acoustic design, take into account the role of the living environment as a part of care, and identify particular characteristics and needs regarding environments aimed at people with memory disorders in terms of developing memory-friendly environments. The terms memory- and age-friendly living environment in this context refer to accessible, easy-to-use and easy-to-understand environments.

“Regulations and instructions guiding the design of acoustic environments do not take into account people with memory disorders, and at the same time, design guidance concerning environments for those with memory disorders rarely considers the acoustics of the space. Providing guidance makes the situation easier by offering a collection of information on designing acoustic environments for people with memory disorders, and promoting the importance of acoustic design as a part of memory-friendly environments. Furthermore, it offers a basis for practical implementation, through which recommendations, and thus buildings, can be modified to make them even more functional,” explains Salminen.

Acoustic environments play a significant role in promoting wellbeing

According to Salminen, the quality of an acoustic environment is determined to a large extent through use of traditional acoustic measurements, however, design based on these does not ensure a pleasant acoustic environment, particularly for people with memory disorders.

“Relatively little attention has been paid to the fact that a good acoustic environment is a broad entity comprising more factors than just sound absorption. It also has to do with how the acoustic environment is ultimately experienced by the end users. In my view, a good acoustic environment for people with memory disorders is accessible, familiar, sensory-friendly, and considerate of the space’s functions and users.”

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The acoustic environment plays a particularly important role in supporting interaction situations, as memory disorders often pose challenges for understanding what is being heard and maintaining conversations.

When the acoustic environment is taken into consideration in space design from the start of the project, the end result is a more diverse and balanced experience of the space.

“The sensory and acoustic environment has a substantial impact on the wellbeing of and smooth flowing of everyday life for people with memory disorders. The acoustic environment plays a particularly important role in supporting interaction situations, as memory disorders often pose challenges for understanding what is being heard and maintaining conversations. Research has also shown that acoustic environment design has an impact on the quality of life of people with memory disorders by improving sleep quality and reducing restlessness, anxiety, behavioural symptoms, use of psychoactive medication, and stress directed at carers and staff,” Salminen summarises.

The MonIA project

The objective of the MonIA project led by the Research Group for Health and Wellbeing Architecture (SOTERA) at Aalto University is to investigate and design new, flexible living solutions that lie between living at home and in an enhanced assisted living facility. A further aim is to support communal, diverse and inclusive solutions and reduce the social isolation of elderly people with mild memory disorders.

In addition to Aalto University, the parties involved in the project are: the Ministry of the Environment of Finland; the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland (ARA); the Cities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Pori, Porvoo and Kirkkonummi; HEKA Oy; Yrjö ja Hanna Kodit; and Saint-Gobain Finland Oy / Ecophon.