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Image of an older gentleman sitting on a bench and using a map as a visual cue to find his way.

We often take our ability to navigate our surroundings and move through space for granted. We glide from place to place with little thought or effort. It’s called visual cueing, or wayfinding, something older adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia often struggle with.

But wayfinding isn’t just about the physical act of moving from one space to another; it’s about the way our brains process the surrounding information to improve spatial awareness. Historically, when people think of wayfinding, they think of visual cues, like signage — the two have almost become inextricably linked. But suppose we expand the scope of what a visual cue can be. In that case, architecture, interior design, landscape, and lighting all play a role.

Signage, too, of course. Or, in some cases, the stars.

Let’s consider Polynesian cultures. Long before the existence of maps or GPS, people still had to explore and seek out terrain that could support their way of life. That meant navigating the open ocean by careful observation of the stars and planets.

It worked, too. The Polynesians successfully navigated thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean and used their knowledge to trek through unforgiving environments where the consequences of missteps were severe. Theirs was a situation in which the fundamental purpose of wayfinding was to venture out in search of something greater and always return to land — safely.

And today, safety is still the top priority when it comes to exploring both familiar and unfamiliar territory, particularly for older adults.

It’s about helping people feel grounded and connected to a specific place in time.

What Are Visual Cues for Dementia Patients?

Visual cueing is how we typically get from point A to point B. We seek objects, pictures, symbols, or written words and use them to reach a specific destination. Those markers on the highway that tell you when and whether to turn are standard visual cues.

The important thing to consider, particularly when discussing visual cues for dementia patients, is that we aren’t talking about a list of written instructions. We’re talking about a simple written phrase, image, or object that can trigger memory.

Effective wayfinding uses paths, signs, garden beds, plants, sculptures, color schemes, and sounds, both inside and outside a facility. There’s no greater emphasis placed on one cue over another as they’re all valuable when it comes to helping older adults exercise their independence when going from one place to the next.

Here’s a list of effective wayfinding cues:

  1. Landmarks, like specific trees or unique structures
  2. Paintings, sculptures, and other decorative features
  3. Planned architectural features, like personalized doorways
  4. Changes in color
  5. Changes in lighting levels
  6. Changes in floor surfaces

Other types of visual cues can be used to remind older adults of specific chores or activities. As their primary caretaker, you might lay their outfit for the day on their bed, so they dress appropriately for the weather. Alternatively, you might leave their toothbrush next to the bathroom sink, so they remember to brush their teeth.

Colorful post-it notes that remind them where to find specific items like glasses, clothes, or medications are also helpful.

A note on color: Color perception plays a critical role in proper memory function. Older people find it increasingly hard to distinguish colors based on hue and lightness, so color choice is paramount if you’re creating a specific visual cueing system or designing a living space.

The Benefits of Visual Cueing

The primary benefit of successful wayfinding is relatively straightforward: Your loved one can get from point A to point B safely and without incident.

But there’s more. Visual cues don’t always rely on language – they’re graphic-heavy. Despite losing their language skills, your loved one can still find their way by processing what they see around them. They also give older adults a greater sense of independence and can be adjusted based on how each individual responds to specific cues.

Visual Cues and Wayfinding at The Moments

At The Moments, we know how important it is for our residents to safely move about the facility without fear, frustration, or the potential of injury. For this reason, we put a great deal of thought into the layout and spatial planning of every environment: living quarters, dining areas, lounge rooms, and recreation spaces.

Want to learn more about how our facilities support dementia residents through sensory design?

Contact us, or schedule a visit today!

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