Field observations into the environmental soul: The Impact of spatial configuration on social life for people experiencing dementia
Time and memory are two aspects of the human condition upon which architectural design is largely predicated. When designing for people experiencing dementia, these assumptions are challenged. Unfortunately, we find within senior care design a focus on designing for family members and their desire for tradition and familiarity as opposed to the significant psychosocial needs of the resident. We argue that such designs ought to be considered from a social justice perspective and with a desire to give voice to marginalized populations. As the rules are challenged, such design cannot be based upon expert intuition but rather requires intimate knowledge and experience of life within place. In this paper, we will focus on the important, facilitating role architectural design plays in facilitating social interaction within long-term care facilities. Social interaction is considered an essential therapeutic intervention for people with Dementia of Alzheimer’s Type (DAT). Here we apply space syntax as an objective measure of environmental characteristics and whose body of knowledge shows that the physical environment affects social interaction, in turn affecting individual well-being. Two key characteristics related to social interaction are proximity and visibility and yet studies involving these concepts in Long-term Care Facilities (LTCF) are almost absent. This research hypothesizes that proximity and environmental visibility in social spaces—dining rooms and living rooms—found within LTCF-DATs may affect social interactions among residents.
After implementing a filed observation protocol including a behavior-mapping technique, around 150 rounds of behavioral observations related to various levels of social interactions have been collected in the social spaces of three local LTCFs with different spatial configurations. By using the visibility and proximity metrics of space syntax, the locations of occurrence of various social activities in relation to the furniture layout on architectural floor plans has been identified. The observed data of the dementia residents that particularly related to the social activity, visibility and proximity metrics of space syntax were then analyzed.
The results of this study show that the residents of the facilities were engaged in very low to low level of social interactions in locations with better visibility and accessibility. However, for very high-level of social interactions, they preferred locations with less visibility and accessibility. This is an important, nuanced finding as it suggests that architectural configuration factors impact the type of conversations likely to occur in certain locations. A more enriched and differentiated spatial layout of social spaces in care facilities could generate positive consequences for social interactions, positive affect and overall well-being.