Increasingly, adults living with dementia are choosing to age in place. Just as their homes need to adapt to their more complex needs, so too do their communities.
Researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia are collaborating to figure out how we can create dementia-friendly neighbourhoods and make it easier for people living with dementia and their caregivers to take part fully and be active in their community.
“To support people living with dementia so they can age with dignity and grace, we need to make it possible for them to continue to participate in activities they find meaningful,” says UNBC Nursing Associate Professor Dr. Shannon Freeman. “For instance, if they always enjoyed taking their dog for a walk, we want to make sure it’s still possible for them to do so safely.”
Along with project manager Emma Rossnagel, Freeman and UNBC School of Planning and Sustainability Associate Professor Dr. Mark Groulx are leading the northern component of the research project. Simon Fraser University Gerontology Professor Dr. Habib Chaudhury is the principal investigator for the project titled Developing Supportive Neighbourhood-Built Environment to Foster Mobility, Engagement and Social Participation among Community-Dwelling Adults Living with Dementia (DemSCAPE).
The Public Health Agency of Canada is providing $715,801 through the Dementia Strategic Fund to support the research.
The researchers will identify features of neighbourhoods that affect the mobility and participation of people living with dementia and develop an easy-to-use tool to assess environments supportive of people living with dementia. They will also develop guidelines for dementia-inclusive communities that can be used by policymakers, decision-makers, and the public.
“We know it is important for people to be able to enjoy time outdoors, whether it’s exercising or socializing with others,” Groulx says. “To ensure neighbourhoods are walkable for people living with dementia, we will learn with persons living with dementia and their family or friend care partners here in the northern community what aspects of their neighbourhoods shape use and enjoyment. This could include everything from the presence and condition of sidewalks and benches to the colour and font used in signage.”
Freeman and Groulx have been collaborating for over five years and Groulx said relationships between planning and public health are “absolutely necessary … to advance health and well-being in our communities.”
“As a planner, we recognize our responsibility for creating health problems, to be quite honest, through a lot of planning we have done in the post-war period — fairly sprawled-out communities that aren’t walkable, don’t promote health-conducive behaviours,” he explained.
“I think it’s really, really important that if we’re part of the kind of upstream cause of some of that, we collaborate effectively with folks that have the detailed expertise and knowledge to really come up with solutions to the really complex problems that we’ve created for ourselves.”
As future aspects of the project move toward developing guidelines, Freeman, Groulx, and Rossnagel will be contributing the experience of the northern context. They will consider how winter weather, existing community supports, and even the presence of wildlife in the community can affect how inclusive a neighbourhood is for people living with dementia.
“Working in partnership with persons living with dementia and their care partners here in the north is critical to ensure the guidelines are relevant to those living and aging in our northern communities,” adds Rossnagel.
“Prince George is kind of a sweet-spot in that geographically we’re very different, our planning history is very different, the structure of our community in terms of density and mobility is different, but still comparable enough to other urban contexts,” explained Groulx.
The project draws upon UNBC’s interdisciplinary collaboration.
As a social gerontologist, Freeman brings expertise in what supports are needed for aging adults to continue to live at home.
Groulx, a registered professional planner, researches inclusive, barrier-free design.
“This is community-based research that will have a direct impact on the lives of people in northern British Columbia,” Freeman says.
The two researchers hope to begin sharing some of the learnings by the spring of 2023.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, over 500,000 Canadians are living with dementia. That number is predicted to grow to 912,000 by 2030.
One in five Canadians have had to care for someone with dementia.