The facts cannot be overlooked:  Alzheimer’s is identified as the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and one out of three seniors is being diagnosed with the disease.

“That puts greater emphasis on having good design,” Betsy Brawley, president, Design Concepts Unlimited,  told the audience on the opening day of Neocon 2013 during the session, “Exploring the Things Most Overlooked in Creating Better Alzheimer’s Environments.”

To serve this growing population, Brawley and Jane Rohde, principal, JSR Associates, discussed design ideas that encourage and support independence while promoting safety. “Often we focus on the disability rather than the ability,” says Rohde.

Instead, the speakers suggest that the physical environment and design features should support the function of the cognitively impaired, be more efficient, and help staff members provide better care and services.

That starts with designers and architects understanding what programs and activities are going on at a senior or long-term living facility so they can create functional layouts and build in appropriate storage and shelving. This allows the staff to store supplies nearby so they aren’t running all over the place to pull together materials.

Along with flexibility, another design goal is to encourage socialization and mobility. “We don’t want to create places where people go and sit all day,” Brawley says. “We want them up and moving.” So outside, think community gardens and sidewalks wide enough to fit two wheelchairs and caregivers, while inside, create seating areas that accommodate small group conversations, varied ceiling heights for scaled spaces, and rooms that resemble more home-like settings.

An abundance of bathrooms is another important, but often overlooked, design necessity. “They will bless you if you put bathrooms nearby,” says Brawley, particularly near dining areas and activity rooms, since many Alzheimer and dementia patients have issues with incontinence or cannot easily remember where their rooms are to access their own private bathrooms.

To encourage safety, materials should have a balance of color and contrast. “This is not a place where you want a lot going on in the floor pattern,” says Brawley. Instead, designers should opt for medium color ranges on the flooring and a lighter contrast on the walls. They also caution against floor trim in a dark color or matching the flooring. “If the flooring looks like it goes up the wall, it gives a false sense of where the wall is,” she adds.

As more designers and architects address the growing Alzheimer’s population, one benefit of the awareness is the desire for more research, says Rohde. “More facilities are embracing research so I know there’s some good teaming going on.”