Reflections in Isolation - How COVID 19 has positively impacted our approach to Aged Care design

04/06/2020 - 18:33

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During the ‘stay at home’ advice implemented during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, MKDC were in a unique position to understand how Residential Aged Care Facilities can develop future strategies. What we learnt? People first, always.

MKDC's Jacqui Williams chatting with a resident and their family in the new café lounge

During the ‘stay at home’ advice implemented during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, MKDC were in a unique position to understand how Residential Aged Care Facilities can develop future strategies. What we learnt? People first, always.

Reflection 1: A home is more than bricks and mortar

As interior designers, we love the indoors. Still, we’ll be the first to admit that the confinement to our homes over these last weeks, has been tough. We ventured out for the essentials only – to go food shopping, take the kids for a hike. Our lives became tactful dance, choreographed by others.

Likewise, our face-to-face interactions have been controlled, limited to scheduled zoom calls and get-togethers of less people than needed for a game of UNO! We couldn’t host dinner parties, have family over for a BBQ or pop in for a cup of tea.

For us, this is not normal. But for residents of aged care facilities, this loss of control can be a daily reality. 

As champions of person-centred design, MKDC know that the challenge of residential aged care design is to create a place to call home. We know home is not just a physical space, but an idea of intimacy, familiarity, and security - a safe port to anchor ourselves within.

MKDC have been reminded of this as many of us began struggling with being at home as the days and weeks in isolation ticked over. Not because our homes are not aesthetically ‘homely’, but because we lacked choice and connection within this confinement.

Moving forward, our designs will continue to prioritise how we can keep residents and staff safe in facilities which remain to function as homes - places infused with family, friends, and shared positive experiences.

Reflection 2: In-person connection is better than good wi-fi connection

To kept physically distanced, we have increased our reliance on technology to keep us connected to friends, family, and work colleagues. Likewise in aged care facilities, technology replaced in-person visits with Facetime and Zoom, facilitating social interactions between residents and those on the outside. 

The aged care industry is no stranger to issues of social disengagement. One of the key findings of the Royal Commission was that large numbers of aged care residents are suffering depression due to loneliness and lack of social connection within facilities. As such, MKDC have been prioritising spaces within aged care facilities which bring people together to help mitigate feelings of loneliness and depression. 

We know our approach works. In 2014, our first aged care refurbishment was centred on creating shared spaces – ambitiously transforming underutilised space into a light filled café lounge with adjoining intergenerational courtyard. Within the first year of re-opening, the facility reported a 400% increase in visitors. Residents described how their family and friends now had ‘space’ to visit, children space to play and teenagers access to good Wi-Fi. The whole family can now come and feel comfortable and welcome.

Yes, we would all have been lost without video streaming over the last months however, we can all agree that there’s no replacement for being in the same room as our loved ones. Inspired by this, MKDC have doubled-down on their commitment to finding space for meaningful, in-person connections for residents in both existing and new facilities – during lockdowns or otherwise.

Reflection 3: Nature heals, it cannot be taken for granted

During COVID restrictions, one of our few pleasures was going for a walk outdoors. It was free, it was accessible, and it made us feel great. It may have even kept us sane!

As aged-care designers, we know nature – exposure to sunlight and fresh air - positively impacts on resident wellness, particularly those living with dementia. Now, more than ever, we understand the need to prioritise outdoor spaces and outdoor activities in aged care facilities. Not only does this ensure residents have fresh quality air, it allows family and friends to safely visit residents in the event of future outbreaks.

During COVID 19 we heard how our Aged care clients created innovative approaches to keeping up resident morale. Speaking with Brightwater Care Group CEO Jennifer Lawrence about their unique approach to overcoming the lock down blues for their residents using their outdoor spaces.

“ We arranged for a 3 piece opera (Freeze Frame) to play on the back of a truck for our residents in the car park when visitors were limited at our residential facilities in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a huge success, so much so that we had residents seated outside in the gardens and car park, on a beautiful day, socially distanced. Some of their families even set up deck chairs across the street to listen and join in the fun. We even opened all the windows for clients inside. The feedback was amazing.”

Clearly there is a need for outdoor spaces in aged care facilities to be available and easily accessible. A heavy, manual door which is difficult to open may result in residents feeling that they are not allowed outside. Similarly, large gardens with blind spots can make staff hesitant about residents going outside unattended. By creating smaller courtyards, easily accessible though automatic doors, residents become emboldened to get out into their own patch of nature.

At MKDC, we know the value of quality interior spaces which connect us to nature and to each other. But here-in lies the challenge: how do aged care facilities safety maintain the wellbeing of residents, these connections, during lockdowns, COVID-related or otherwise?

Reflection 4: To make a big impact we need to think small! 

Aged care facilities which can control viral breakouts while sustaining a sense of normality, face-to-face human interactions, and connection to nature, will be well placed for success in the future. During a time of big ideas, we are conquering this design challenge by thinking smaller! 

The small house design model is one approach that allows aged care providers to implement lockdowns, COVID-19 related or otherwise, with confidence and control.   

MKDC are currently designing several facilities for Aged Care providers whom are adopting the Small House model of care. It is a move away from the ‘cruise ship’ lifestyle model where communal spaces are used by the whole facility for organised large group activities and larger scaled shared dining spaces. Conversely the small house model prioritises smaller, more intimate spaces, with each house or wing having its own dining, kitchen, living area and backyard. It is a model for care that has been endorsed by dementia design specialists given it creates familiar environments for residents to carry out everyday tasks, gardening, washing, preparing food, enabling choice and independence.

Speaking with MercyCare Executive Director of Aged Care Services Joanne Penman recently in relation to the insights COVID 19 has bought, she reflected on the unintended benefits of the small house design we are currently developing with them

“At a practical level, the small house model as we have designed it will allow for a high level of infection control and the ability for each house to operate independently. This means we will be able to only partially lock down facilities in the future, and remain safe and operational in all other areas, including visitation by families and friends” 

MDKC have enjoyed using our extended time at home to reflect on our design approach to aged care design. We have been reminded that, by always returning to the basics and putting people first, we can create aged care homes that achieve not only resident safety but better overall wellbeing.

For more information call the MKDC office on 9321 7955 and visit us at: mkdc.com.au or email us at kkusinski@mkdc.com.au.

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