Creating dementia-friendly neighbourhoods

As more people choose to live at home as they grow older, there are steps communities can take to make neighbourhoods friendly for people living with dementia and their caregivers.

January 31, 2022
A couple of older adults walk their dog along a trail near the Fraser River.
Creating accessible pathways, trails and sidewalks are an important part of making communities livable for people living with dementia and their caregivers.

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.” 

Throughout the project, Freeman and Groulx will engage with people living with dementia in Prince George and their caregivers to discover what barriers exist in the built environment and what improvements can be made. 

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.

The project draws upon UNBC’s interdisciplinary collaboration. As a social gerontologist, Freeman brings expertise in what supports are needed for ageing 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.