My appreciation for interior design is routed in the social, physical, and emotional impact it has on people, often subconsciously. With human wellbeing as the most influential aspect of design, my approach to interiors is holistic; creating a spatial experience that encourages connection to the self and to others.
Fora Community Centre is a facility designed for the Alzheimer Society of Toronto. It is dedicated to supporting the social needs, cognitive health, and emotional wellbeing of those with young onset dementia, and the families caring for them at home. This is a safe public space that allows those suffering with the disease to be themselves and act autonomously, and reduces stress experienced by caregivers. Through fostering connections to new peer groups, building skills and interests in day programs, and providing empathetic spaces to process difficult emotions, social stigma can be combated, and a strong community is formed.
Rationale and Design Narrative
Dementia is a stigmatizing disease - those suffering from it often experience social rejection from family and friends. As a result, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression are common. People with young onset dementia (ages 40-65) face further challenges. Though this age group typically has a robust social life and are often caregivers to children or aging parents, their declining health greatly impacts this. Public environments also become stressful and disorienting, often leading to a deliberate withdrawal from public life. Shame or inability to cope with unfamiliar, fast-paced environments further narrows their world. These factors heighten the symptoms of dementia and produce a stronger burden on caregivers - who may then decide to send their loved ones to long-term care facilities. An environment that supports individual growth and emotional fulfillment for caregivers and care receivers can prevent this removal from a safe, familiar home life.
Design Connection to Research
Primary and secondary research uncovered that social engagement and recreational activities sustain emotional wellbeing and increase cognitive health. Allowing people with dementia to engage in what they choose and giving them opportunities to be successful boosts self-esteem and contributes to their identity. Outdoor spaces bring a feeling of hope and become places of social activity as well. To create a stronger connection to public space, considering what makes an environment familiar to someone with dementia was also key. Regular interaction with the same people and/or repeated activities within an environment creates this. Additionally, caregivers and care receivers need areas for an emotional outlet to feel connected to themselves and to prevent tunnel vision effect on their situation. People with dementia also require places of respite when they experience hypersensitivity to their environment.
Character of Space
The design creates memorable experiences and place attachment through focal points. Passive wayfinding and emphasized interior elements encourage self-engagement and trigger memory, giving a sense of control to one’s surroundings. Focal points also create moments of pause that prevent environments from becoming overwhelming. This is explored in 3 ways: framed elements, void spaces, and central forms. Two large courtyards create the void space; one a place for outdoor recreation, the other a garden to escape noise and connect to nature. The café and board game area acts as a landmark for social engagement, encouraging visitors to circulate around to grab their coffee, select their board game, and sit with their peers. Materials throughout the facility are used to create a youthful and energetic interior with a balance of calming natural texture. Carpet tile and LVT reduce noise and create coloured zones within large open spaces for easy navigation. Beech LVL framing is used to highlight views into other spaces and of the surrounding neighbourhood for a warmer feel.
The Alzheimer Society is the leading non-profit organization in Canada dedicated to helping people with dementia and their families. Their work includes research initiatives, education on quality care, support services, brain health and social programs. It was important to offer an extension of the services they provide, while also improving on their current model. Data collected from employees and caregivers at the Alzheimer Society Toronto indicated that the stigma of dementia persists. Their feedback suggested that brain puzzles, arts and crafts, and physical activity would greatly improve the social skills and cognitive health of visitors to this space. It was also important to include a seminar room for public education on quality care to a broader community, further reducing the stigma associated with dementia. Emotional support was considered a large aspect of the organization’s operations, and the quiet library, counselling rooms, yoga room, and outdoor spaces provide an opportunity to release emotions or escape discomfort of public spaces.