I recently had the good fortune of visiting my family in Australia and attending my cousin’s wedding. However, amidst the celebration and the joy of seeing my relatives, a shadow of sadness hovered over me as I came to understand the drastic changes my grandmother has undergone since I last saw her ten years ago. At 81, gone are her impeccable posture and brisk, firm footsteps. Her back hunches over noticeably and every step is made with cautious effort. But what was most noticeable was the affect of Alzheimer’s taking over her mind.
My grandmother and I would joke and laugh as we searched all over the house looking for her glasses for the third time, her sweater for the fourth time, her slippers for the fifth time. The biggest laugh was when we went hunting for her top dentures! But hidden beneath her laughter I know there is a sense of frustration, loss of dignity, and fear. Laughter is just the best way she knows how to cope with it.
As I bid farewell to my grandmother and returned to work, what Gregg used to always repeat to us kept resonating in my head: “Don’t design a corridor that leads to a dead end. It will bring isolation and fear.” “Bring in natural light. It will help lift grandma’s mood and help her sense the passing of time and seasons.” “Of course you put a private shower in every room! Where is the dignity in being wheeled down the hall in your night gown?”
During my short stay in Australia, my uncles showed me the unwavering dedication, incredible patience, sensitivity and kindness it takes to care for my grandmother. All of this effort comes purely out of love and the hope to keep her smiling. And, as a popular animated Disney character says, because “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind. Or forgotten.” Gregg’s catch phrase “Design like you are designing for your grandmother” suddenly took on a deeper meaning.
In this season of giving thanks, I would like to extend a special gratitude to all my relatives in Australia who have done everything and more for my grandmother where I couldn’t. In a trying year for our office; (we have lost a grandfather, a mother, a brother, a sister and a friend), a big “Thank You” to all the healthcare professionals that have made the lives of our loved ones that much better. Looking around me, I see the same dedication and heart in the healthcare facilities we do work at. Every day, all across the spectrum from owners to nurses to staff, these people are working hard to restore the residents’ abilities, retain their dignity and relevance, and instill courage and happiness in our elders.
As architects, our tools to make a difference are design and architecture, and my first design proposition is built-in denture holders with UV light at every resident night table for safe keeping of their pearly whites… just kidding! But regardless of our different job descriptions and tools of change, I firmly believe our mission within this industry is the same; to make their lives better.
May the grandmas and grandpas of the world smile on!