What is a Memory Support Unit and how does it create a dementia friendly environment?

In 2023, Dementia Australia estimates more than 400,000 Australians are thought to be living with dementia, and over 68 per cent of aged care residents living with a moderate to severe cognitive impairment.

People living with dementia experience symptoms that impact on their thinking, behaviour, and ability to perform daily tasks, often requiring specific dementia care.

Thus comes an increasing need for dementia friendly environments in our aged care homes. Some aged care providers like Heritage Care have Memory Support Units (sometimes known as a dementia unit) to support people impacted by memory loss.


How do Memory Support Units support people with dementia?

Memory Support Units prioritise the mental wellbeing of residents by using evidence-proof, best-practice design features like modifications to lighting, easy to navigations and avoiding patterns or objects that might confuse a person with dementia.

Memory Support Units often include gardens and outdoor greenspaces for residents to use. Spending time outside in greenspaces has been shown to have positive mental health benefits, as well as boosting vitamin D levels, lowering our blood pressure and reducing stress.


What is a dementia friendly environment?

A dementia friendly care environment supports people living with dementia by fostering a sense of independence, belonging and connection to other people. It is about creating safe, accessible and welcoming spaces where people can move around freely and enjoy a more fulfilling and active lifestyle.

Some aged care homes like Heritage Epping will have a dedicated Memory Support Unit (sometimes known as a dementia unit) which is purpose built to offer a secure environment for people living with dementia that feels “just like home”.

The Memory Support Unit (MSU) at Heritage Epping is a secure living space that operates through a tailored person-centred care approach that helps your loved one with dementia continue to participate in things they enjoy. Residents can move freely and safely around the lounges, dining areas, courtyards, and gardens.

Our other four homes with Memory Support Units are: Heritage Gardens in Bayswater North Victoria, Watergardens in Sydenham Victoria, as well as New South Wales homes Heritage Illawong and Heritage Queanbeyan.


What are the key things to look for in a dementia-friendly home?

For people living with dementia, changes in cognitive capability can make their physical and social environments increasingly difficult.

Designing spaces for people with dementia should be consistent with people’s social and cultural needs, as well as their capabilities. Research has shown building a dementia-friendly environment can support people living with dementia to reach their full potential.

Here are six key qualities to look for when searching for a dementia-friendly environment for your loved one.

1. A true home-like environment

Residential care that have homely touches with personalised private spaces have been shown to increase the quality of life for people living with dementia. Familiarity can greatly help a person with dementia use and enjoy spaces. After all, no one’s home has a nurse’s station in it.

Small-scale special care units, sometimes known as ‘Dementia villages’ have been shown to improve person-centred care and have a number of positive benefits. For example, smaller spaces are less intimidating and can help put residents at ease, increasing their social interactions and their ability to perform tasks independently. Feeling comfortable can also increase food consumption, which can prevent unwanted weight loss or health concerns.


2. A home with a focus on wellbeing

Dementia-friendly homes offer specialised care that caters to a small number of residents. This focussed model of care is thought to improve the communication, social interaction and physical activity of people living with dementia.

Heritage Epping offers a specialised dementia care home for 14 people that has been specifically designed to be a dementia-friendly space. For example, a number of rooms have been setup for small groups to promote a sense of extended family and ensures people feel comfortable.

The home has incorporated dementia-friendly lighting techniques to induce a calm environment, which reduces agitation or aggressive behaviour. Sound is also important in a dementia-friendly space. By reducing loud noises, we can reduce potential over stimulation that could result in outbursts or confusion.

To foster a calm morning routine, gentle background music can be played or even having the care workers sing, all of which helps set a positive outlook for the residents’ day.


3. An emphasis on high quality care

Staff should have adequate, dementia-specific training. All staff at Heritage Epping have had dementia-friendly training and personnel going to work in the memory support unit will be completing advanced dementia training by Dementia Australia.

Residents deserve to feel comfortable and that they truly belong in their home. Ask about how dementia-friendly the staffing roster is for your loved one. The Heritage Epping staff roster works on a fixed basis so that residents will see the same faces, offering them additional familiarity. This avoids any distress by unknown carers.


4. A focus on preserving independence through environmental cues

People with dementia quite often need environmental cues to help them navigate a space independently. Thoughtful design touches can be used here to support what’s known as ‘wayfinding strategies’ that help a person with dementia maintain their ability to complete daily tasks.

Evidence has shown that using direct and visual access to spaces like toilets, as well as informative signs and posters can help. Each area should be set up as a ‘zone’ using a straight or L-shape system, with furnishing used to clearly show what each room is. For example, a television and reading corner in the lounge room.

Other wayfinding strategies that help create a dementia-friendly environment include clearly labelling cupboards with their contents, using natural light with views to outside spaces and importantly using contrasting colours between furniture and handrails as a clear visual cue for people to use.

Assistive automation technology like lights and remote-controlled sounds can also be beneficial to cue wayfinding.


5. A thoughtful design that fosters empowerment

Dementia-friendly spaces are about empowering people with dementia to continue to participate in their everyday lives. Heritage Epping offer tailored lifestyle programs for residents that incorporates their history, occupation, and life experience. This helps support interested and participation in daily activities and social involvement.

By drawing on a person’s interests, experiences, strengths and abilities, our carers can create environmental conditions that will help our residents with dementia to live a full and dignified life in aged care.


6. A perfected dining experience

Food is incredibly important to our lives, as is the experience of sharing meals and drinks. People with dementia are at risk of weight loss as the ability to eat and hunger cues decrease.

A positive dining experience includes understanding residents’ preferences, culturally specific food, and respecting their dignity. Research has shown that creating a homely atmosphere can increase the amount of food people with dementia eat at mealtimes.

A survey into residential aged care food and dining experience found a key need was for “familiar” high-quality meals and snacks that are fresh, seasonal and homemade. All of this contributes to routine and a sense of comfort which is crucial for people with dementia to lead an enjoyable and fulfilling life in residential care.

To meet the Aged Care Quality Standards for dining experiences, an aged care provider should meet key standards including offering dignity and choice, service and support for daily living and ongoing planning with the resident.


Does Heritage Care offer dementia care?

Yes, all Heritage Care homes are dementia-friendly communities suitable for people living with low level dementia care. We take a person-centred approach to care to empower residents with autonomy, independence and to ensure their care needs are understood, respected and supported.

Our staff are specifically trained in dementia care which ensures people with dementia can continue to live how they want to in the community.

Contact the friendly team at Heritage Care to learn more about our dedicated Memory Support Units and how we can help your loved one live well with dementia. View our home’s contact list to put a plan in place today.

Learn more about our new Memory Support Unit launching at Heritage Epping.