The Wrong Question
Not a month goes by that someone doesn’t seek my input regarding “the best color to (increase alertness, increase appetite, promote a sense of calm…)” for older adults with or without dementia. I used to really worry about providing an accurate answer to these questions based on the latest available research. But after years of inconsistent and contradictory answers, I’ve decided that there is no ideal answer.
And, in fact, I think much of it is bunk.
By the time someone has lived 50, 70, or 90 years, vast life experience has already influenced color preferences and related behaviors beyond what can be neatly checked in a box. Consider lighting, contrast, temperature, seasonal and circadian rhythms, geography, eye health, culture, gender, and personal history… how a particular color affects a person can be related to a very deeply rooted, highly complex variety of influences. To say that yellow kitchens improve food intake and blue bedrooms make people sleep better does not make for a solid design foundation.
Ask Different Questions
Firstly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to “what is the best color to…”.
The first question should be “Who?”
Are we choosing colors for a single person in their own home? Or do we need to consider multiple residents in an aggregate space?
If we are choosing a color for Bob who lives with his daughter, then we can more easily hone in on Bob’s personal preferences, health, and situation. If Bob uses walkers with wheels and a seat while his roommates do not – he needs full wheel-access and they don’t.
If we are considering the needs of multiple people, then let’s start with some broad generalizations and then pare down to some specialized details.
- Are most of the residents from a similar cultural background?
- Rural or urban histories?
- Northern climate or southern climate?
- What is the age and activity level of this group?
- Any common health issues (dementia, eye diseases…)
Eye Health and Visual Perception
In order for there to even be a discussion about color, there should be a discussion about vision. You can’t have one without the other.
Visual changes in the older adult are very common. Eye diseases such as cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, and astigmatism, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, cause visual and perceptual problems that color alone cannot correct. Contrast, glare, and perceptual problems from neurological conditions are huge considerations in design and color selection, more than the color itself.
Contrast sensitivity is the ability to distinguish color and brightness among objects in the same visual field. The ability to distinguish contrast is vital for promoting independence and safety. Poor contrast sensitivity means that the environment can seem flat and one dimensional, and a person may have trouble locating the white toilet against a white tile floor, or find the edge of a step or curb when the pavement surfaces are the same color.
- Highlight objects and edges that you want to be easily seen.
- No monochromatic color schemes
- Color choices should be dark and light
Glare sensitivity is a largely misconstrued symptom of eye disease. Folks who have trouble modulating glare often appear depressed, withdrawn, or cognitively impaired due to an intolerance to light. Many eye conditions cause light to scatter once it hits the eye causing discomfort and headaches, and an inability to effectively use vision when communicating with others or navigating the environment.
*Hint: walk around a facility and take note of who is squinting, positioned with head down, or prefers the blinds drawn. You might discover that folks have visual/perceptual problems related to eye diseases that have less to do with color and more to do with lighting and contrast.
- Focused light- bright, broad spectrum room lighting can diffuse light and cause discomfort. Low ambient light with direct light near specific surfaces works best. Consider how a night light can cause a halo effect in a dark room, but a light source pointed downward toward the floor more effectively illuminates the targeted area.
- Choose wall colors that absorb, not reflect light.
- Be aware of surfaces that can cause glare- mirrors, shiny furniture, waxed floors.
With increasing age comes an increased risk of developing a neurodegenerative condition such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, in addition to the previously mentioned eye diseases common in older adults. In the case of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, visual information may not be processed correctly by the brain, leading to difficulty in navigation and generating movement. Successful navigation and movement have very little to do with the color of the walls or flooring, but plenty to do with well-defined borders, clean lines, solid vs. patterned surfaces. People with neurodegenerative conditions can struggle with thresholds, where there is usually a change in surface color, height, or texture. A decreased ability to perceive depth or accurately interpret the visual information being processed in the brain can lead to really difficult time transitioning through a doorway or from carpet to hard wood. Sometimes a dark surface can even be perceived as a big black hole, causing fear and apprehension about moving at all.
- Senior living environments should not look like a casino. Avoid confusing patterns.
- Provide visual cues on the floor that assist with navigation- arrows, lines that can be followed to a desired destination, barrier free thresholds, visually continuous thresholds.
Color Temperature, Time, Season, and Culture
I struggle with the science behind the influence of color temperature, unless it is in the context of one’s culture and personal history. I think how one “feels” in a warmer or cooler environment has more to do with subjective preference and experience. Color’s ability to evoke passion and feeling is hard to standardize across cultures and can vary from day to day and season to season.
Consider this, Bob grew up in Buffalo, NY where he experienced long winters. Bob’s experience with color temperature has a lot to do with seasons: Cooler in the spring and summer, warmer in the fall, and neutral throughout the winter. Considering that most of his color experience was during the winter months, and periodic change, he is probably quite comfortable with muted, understated tones.
Mary grew up in southern California. Most of her life was lived in the warm color scheme, with a smattering of cooler blue/green sky and ocean exposure. Emotionally speaking, Mary does not function well in black, white, or grey. Mary prefers a bright palette of color.
Mr. Chen is from China. He likes red. It makes him feel prosperous.
Mr. Smith is from Alaska. He likes white. It reminds him of home.
Mr. Chen dislikes white. It reminds him of funerals.
Mr. Smith dislikes red. It makes him feel restless.
Your preference for.. your attraction to.. your comfort with.. your function within.. a particular color scheme is not something that can be decided for you.
- Consider the local climate and common life experience and culture.
- Offer variety if possible- a bright room, a darker room, a neutral space
- Avoid trends- familiar decor and time-sensitive design elements that are familiar to a similarly aged cohort can be more useful than color.
The Secret Sauce
The one thing that all people have in common is an experience with the earth. As citizens of the world, we are all familiar with the rise and fall of the sun and moon, the color of grass, sky, dirt, and water. Most people know seasons, and are familiar with changes in temperature, texture, and lighting from morning to night and summer to winter. Developing color schemes that resonate with that one commonality seems a pretty logical way to go when designing communal spaces.
- Keep the floors earth tones.
- Keep the walls light but not bright.
- Provide focal points in accented colors similar to what you would see outside- a bright tree, a colorful bird, a vast horizon…
- Be intentional about lighting, considering time of day and eye health of the older adult.