Colour Your World…and Theirs!

Members article

By Jane Verity © Dementia Care International

Colour choice for decorating dedicated dementia areas, colours to be favoured or avoided and the impact of murals are frequently discussed in terms of dementia. In particular, people seek guidelines and ask if there is any research to which they can refer?

The following facts and tips are of great value, no matter whether you are a professional or a family carer. There are as many beliefs and philosophies about colour choice in dementia as there are experts. It all comes down to the philosophy and beliefs that you and your organisation are happy with.

Here are some helpful principles to keep in mind:

  • Research is beginning to show that not only is colour contrast  important for people with dementia but so is the tonality of colours (lightness and darkness of a colour). Tonal contrast between colours plays an important role. Tonal contrasts are strongly affected by the quality of the light. For example: Is it bright or cloudy daylight? Is it fluorescent or incandescent electric light?
  • How colour is perceived under one type of lighting may be very different from the way it is perceived under a different type of light bulb. Remember, light is essential to perception – without light, we cannot see anything. In general, the best light is daylight; therefore light bulbs that give light that closely resembles daylight are highly recommended. Ask your electrician for advice on this issue.

Did you know that, in general, older people require three times the amount of light to see as well as younger people and are more sensitive to glare?

Use colour and tonal contrasts to emphasise important features, such as to contrast between walls and floor coverings and at the edge of stairs or level changes, so they are easy to distinguish and therefore help minimise falls. Note that a contrasting edge on floor coverings around walls is to be avoided as it can be interpreted as a step or hole. Contrasts can also be used to focus on important doors, such as the person’s own door or toilet doors. Likewise, blending doors in with the wall colour will make them ‘disappear’ and it is more likely that the person will miss them.

Use contrasts in your signage and incorporate these golden rules:

  • Black writing on white background.
  • Use a font with serifs (such as Times New Roman).
  • Use upper and lower case, bold and a minimum size of 60pt.

People with dementia tend to look down rather than up, so ensure signage is placed in their line of sight – this could be just above door handle height.

Here are some thoughts on the emotional value of colours in dementia design.

  • Recognise that you cater for both men and women and although you may favour the prettier colours with floral designs for bedrooms,  it may not feel right for men. Rather than using pink and blues in the bedrooms, shades of green can be a great substitute. Green is considered the most restful of colours and is said to reduce activity in the central nervous system and help people feel calm. It is a cool colour and makes a room appear larger.
  • In contrast, red is physiologically stimulating. It increases brain wave activity and can also increase the apparent temperature of a room. Shades of red can be useful in areas of high levels of activity.

We challenge the myth that says we should not use red in dementia care. Whilst a few people may not like red, this has nothing to do with dementia in general. If you’ve had an instance when a person reacted negatively to the colour red, it was a uniquely individual reaction for that person. Reflect upon your experience; isn’t it true that there are far more people with dementia who love the colour red than do not? As with everything in dementia, avoid generalisations and remain focussed on the individual.

Using yellow in the bathroom and rose coloured mirrors enables everyone to look their best. This can help a person start the day feeling good. Yellow is known to help people suffering from skin problems and mental lethargy.

The knowledgeable use of colour is undoubtedly helpful in creating the most supportive environment for independence and social and emotional wellbeing. However, no matter how sophisticated the colour scheme, it cannot make up for the human element in dementia. The power of looking into a loving face, of being respected unconditionally, of being included, and being an active participant in life can never be replaced by colour.

Some Creative Colour Ideas
Here are some examples from USA, Denmark and Australia of the creative use of colour in dementia design.

  • This idea comes from the USA for the camouflage of doors when residents wanting to leave through the front door became an issue. Build and paint the inside of the front door to look exactly like the outside, including a doorbell etc. This door then prompts people with dementia to ring the bell and wait for the door to be opened. In this way, they ‘tell’ the staff when they are leaving.
  • In Denmark, at ‘Kridthuset’ a  wonderful home for people with dementia they needed to camouflage the main door leading to and from the dementia specific section of the home.  The door was in the worst possible position – right opposite the end of a corridor attracting people with dementia to use it. The solution was simple; they camouflaged the door with a large mural that even covered the door handle. This was a great success. People with dementia no longer saw the door – only the mural. This disguise prompted many a conversation. It was so effective that a new GP who came to visit a resident couldn’t find the door when he was leaving and had to ask for guidance.

When the Ex-Services Home in Ballina was extending to include a dementia specific area, Director of Care, Joan David, took counsel and chose the Rudolf Steiner way of using colour.  The walls were divided half-way down with a wooden feature line. Steiner colours covered the lower half of the wall and a normal solid colour covers the top.

There is not much colour in the corridors or anything else to attract the person with dementia to stay in the corridors. In contrast, the bedrooms are bright and have attractive colours and special features such as big colourful balloons. This invites the person with dementia into their room.

Joan reported, ‘These colours are not solid colours – they are all blended like washed Italian / Greek style. They are more like being in a cloud or moving through space. They are magic. They stimulate the senses and prevent difficult behaviour.’

The curtains in the bedrooms have dark linings to blacken the rooms. This means the person with dementia can have a proper rest during the day and a morning sleep-in without being woken as soon as it is light.

Joan says, ‘When the environment and the staff are right, difficult behaviour is prevented. There are lots of little things that make the difference. One of the extra, unexpected benefits has been that people who were previously unsteady on their feet are now getting stronger.’

At Oaklands Residential Care Facility, Carol Whelan and a team researched how redecorating the area could enhance the environment. The aim of the project was to create a peaceful and serene atmosphere yet still provide stimulation for residents, staff, family and representatives.

The results of their research led the team to introduce a combination of colour and aromatherapy. They chose blue as the colour for the majority of the walls and yellow for the curtains for its ability to lift spirits and cheer the sick. They added large sea life murals, mainly in blue and yellow with a splash of orange corals for its energizing vibrations, and hung fish mobiles to complement the underwater theme. This colour theme also influenced the choice of furniture colours and style.

The blue wall colour was chosen for its calming and relaxing effect because it is known to help people who feel irritable, jumpy or aggressive. The team went about the whole project in an impressively thorough and scientific manner. They collected data both prior to and after introducing colour and aromatherapy into the area. The results were stunning…three months after the changes, incident reports relating to challenging behaviours were slashed by 80%

(We’d like to extend a warm thank you to Conny Moeller, Director of Care Kridthuset, Denmark; Joan David, Director of Care Ex-Services Home in Ballina, NSW and Carol Whelan, Proprietor of Oaklands Residential Care Facility, SA for allowing us to share their success stories.)

For further reading – Click topic

  • Listening to our Hearts Through Colour – Members article – Wendy Dunn (Learn of the 7 energy centres in our body called chakra centres – as taught by Eastern philosophy, which each have a different colour vibration.)

Relevant Resources:

Spark of Life Club Program Educational Kit – A complete educational resource that enables you to bring the benefits of the Spark of Life Club Program to your facility. Visit our Product Page

Spark of Life Club Program Basic kit – The basic tools you will need to start your own Spark of Life Club Program. Visit our Product Page

lower Game – Positive interaction and creativity based, colourful & joyful game designed to boost self-esteem – Visit our Product Page

Giant balloons Six vibrant colours to induce energy, joy & laughter – reusable – Visit our Product Page

Hand balloon pump – Ideal for blowing up giant balloons – Visit our Product Page

Hug Heart Balloons Small red heart-shaped balloons to exchange for hugs – Visit our Product Page