Dementia is an issue that touches everyone. With an estimated 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, we all have family and friends who have been affected by this most serious and debilitating illness, with its wide ranging and often misunderstood symptoms.
During his premiership, David Cameron launched the “Dementia Challenge”, which aimed to find a treatment or cure by 2025. We certainly hope that his presidency of Alzheimer’s Research UK, announced last week, will help the medical world meet this immense challenge.
But while we wait for the cure, life goes on for many people living with the disease. And there is a more immediate and more achievable outcome we can do something about: improving the environment to help people live well and independently longer.
Public interest in wanting to contribute to support and improve the lives of people living with dementia is shown by the fact 215 local communities have already signed up to become Dementia Friendly Communities. This initiative, established by Alzheimer’s Society, galvanises local efforts and support.
While still in the early stages attention is now turning to how the local built environment can impact on the quality of people living with dementia and help them to maintain their independence for longer.
Dementia and Town Planning, new practice advice published this week by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and endorsed by Alzheimer’s Society, demonstrates how good planning can create better environments for people living with dementia. It argues that, if you get an area right for people living with dementia, you also get it right for all older people, for young disabled people, for families with small children – and ultimately for everyone.
So what can town planning contribute? Rather a lot.
Commitment: The RTPI award-winning Plymouth Plan 2011-2031 includes the ambition to become a dementia friendly city by 2031, starting with an audit whether the city’s communities have access to the services they require. It is one of the few councils that has adopted plans that explicitly mention dementia. If more can do the same it would be a good start.
Detail: Worcestershire County Council have worked with planners from the three South Worcestershire Councils to develop a draft Planning for Health Supplementary Planning Document which contains sections dedicated to “age friendly environments and dementia”. They give urban design advice to create areas that meet the needs of people living with dementia.
Using available tools: As part of Belfast’s successful application to become a World Health Organization age-friendly city it developed an assessment tool to gauge how accessible the built environment is for older people. It carried out walks with people with dementia living in supported housing to gain their opinions and use their experience of the walking environment in their area.
Asking people with dementia what they need: In Bradford, the Face it Together group is wholly led by people with dementia. They have provided feedback on signage and accessibility, and advised on both a hospital refurbishment and the planning of a Westfield Shopping Centre.
A little bit of lateral thinking: That’s is something planners are good at. As part of a scheme to improve the Conservation Area of the small town of Kirriemuir, Angus council have worked with the Dementia Friendly Kirriemuir Project. The council gave planning permission for the change of use for a piece of derelict land to become a dementia friendly garden with a rent of £1.00 per year. The garden will be is a safe, friendly, outdoor space that people living with dementia and the local community can enjoy.
Aiming for the best: Hogeweyk Village, Netherlands is recognised as a world leader in the design of the facilities and care for its 152 residents living with dementia. They live in groups in 23 specially designed houses. The village has streets, squares, gardens, a park and a range of shops and restaurants where the residents move around independently and safely. These facilities can be used by both Hogeweyk residents and people from the surrounding area.
I have to confess to having rather a vested interest in all of this. I have had ME, an invisible and often misunderstood illness for most of my adult life, and like dementia it affects both my physical health and my cognitive functioning. I have decided to make my home in London, a wonderful city in many ways but quite unforgiving on those who find it more difficult to move around. Try negotiating the multiple escalators and steps of Canary Wharf with a pushchair and an inquisitive toddler. Exhausting doesn’t cover it.
So my point is; if we create places that are suitable to meet the needs of people living with dementia, they will be that little bit kinder for all of us to use.
Sarah Lewis is planning practice officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute.