NHS: Old-fashioned decor to help patients with dementia

As more elderly patients with dementia are increasingly making use of hospital care, the NHS is responding in a kinder, gentler manner by changing its wards into places that evoke the décor of yesteryear.

Using vintage items, in the form of movie settings, photographs, ration books and even a TV set that closely replicates one in the 1950s, many hospital wards under the NHS are being transformed into less stressful surroundings for patients who have lost touch with the present.

NHS to help patients with dementia by evoking past memories - Image Credit: LightField Studios / Shutterstock
NHS to help patients with dementia by evoking past memories - Image Credit: LightField Studios / Shutterstock

The reason makes medical and economic sense as well: patients who are under less stress are likely to be more alert and less confused, and will be less likely to fall. They will also probably need less medication. NHS dementia director Alistair Burns says, “Hospital can be a frightening place for many people but can prove a bigger challenge for people with dementia who might feel more confused and agitated in an unfamiliar environment.”

There are about 850,000 patients with dementia in the UK currently, and this will only increase, says the Alzheimer's Society. It is estimated that the rate at which new dementia patients are being diagnosed is equivalent to one every three minutes. That means an astonishing 225,000 new patients will be diagnosed in 2019. This incurable condition is not only distressing to witness but difficult to care for. Nursing homes can charge from £1,500 to £3000 a month.

Some have put up large murals to simulate vintage tearooms such as the Butterfly Tea Rooms, complete with red telephone box, in Airedale Hospital in West Yorkshire. Others, like London's Royal Free Hospital, used old photos to recreate a typical seaside lodging view, like that which might be seen any day at Brighton, a popular seaside resort. The wards, day room and corridor are all decorated in this theme, to strengthen the illusion.

Or take the Hull Royal Infirmary, which has set up an antique cinema booth running old sports reruns or just street scenes from long ago. Charming little memory rooms like the one in Royal Preston Hospital have put up pictures showing the ration books used during the 1940 war years, and old photos.

Call it taking a stroll down memory lane or just making patients feel at home. Or consider these just additional cues to awaken the failing memories of patients with dementia. Or again, it could be one way to get these patients to engage more with their surroundings, feeling more at home. This adds up to their being able to become more meaningfully productive as they begin to get in touch with their past again.

As senior nurse Katie Widdop says, “What we've found is that if patients are engaged in meaningful activity and given mental stimulation in hospital, then not only may they sleep better, but they can be less agitated, are less likely to get up in the night and less likely to fall.” Of course, Burns thinks this is the effect of helping them adjust to the surroundings more easily.

Other notable examples include the memories pub at Wirral’s Arrowe Park hospital, where the walls are covered with posters and beer taps that look just like those from the earlier half of the century, inviting patients to potter around and relive old days when a foaming mug spelt ease and good cheer after a hard day’s work. Or the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital in Margate, which has set up a day room for patients with dementia to snooze peacefully, play board games, complete a puzzle, or just watch television on a 1950’s television set that runs old shows. Or they could listen to old-style choir music sung by the hospital choir from time to time, snuggled in vintage armchairs. Hopefully, this retro ambience will help patients travel back to their happier and more alert past.

Alzheimer’s Society’s Emma Bould says hopefully, “hospitals can be transformed into spaces that will give people with dementia a sense of independence, reduce anxiety and improve both mental and physical health.” This would fit in well with David Cameron’s stated wish to make the UK “the best country in the world for dementia care and support and for people with dementia, their carers and families to live,” by 2020.

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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