New approach to dementia care involves clever design to provide dignity in the details.

Tucked into a sunny corner of Remuera's leafy streets, a new retirement village is quietly re-thinking dementia care for Auckland residents.

"Dignity and dementia are two words not often associated together but we have challenged ourselves to bring a new level of dignity and thoughtfulness to the way we approach dementia care," says Helen Martelli, General Manager of Rawhiti Estate.

The average age of New Zealand's population is increasing rapidly, bringing with it the challenge of catering for a growing number of elderly people with dementia and other forms of memory loss.

The number of retirement villages in New Zealand has been growing quickly to keep up— but few are considering the unique needs of residents with memory loss and designing facilities with those needs in mind.


"When we developed the village, we were clear from the outset that we weren't just building a building. We were building a space that needed to enable us to deliver our care philosophy, centred around supporting residents to remain as independent as possible for as long as possible," says Guy Eady, CEO of BeGroup, parent company of Rawhiti Estate.

Two key challenges facing residents with dementia are reduced cognitive ability and sensory impairment, such as poor vision. The design of Rawhiti Estate has been developed with such needs in mind.

"We know, when people come to us to talk about care, their first concerns are safety, security and quality of care. We deliver that to a high standard but we have also thought beyond this to provide many subtle features that make a difference to residents," says Martelli.

 Helen Martelli, General Manager of Rawhiti Estate. Photo / The Hobson
Helen Martelli, General Manager of Rawhiti Estate. Photo / The Hobson

"That includes having sensor lights in the bathroom, clear wardrobe doors to provide visual reminders for getting dressed in the morning, calming interior colours and specially designed way-finding signage that supports residents who may have problems with their vision."

Residents with dementia can often perceive dark patterns or decisive separations of one area from another as three-dimensional and be afraid of the steps or 'holes' in the floor.

When designing the memory loss suites at Rawhiti Estate, neutral calm colours and reducing patterns in the interior design were key steps to help ensure residents do not get confused or feel unsure about flooring, walls and furniture.

Motion sensors that activate when residents move around their suites ensure staff know when a resident is up and about and potentially needs assistance in the night, or if they are comfortably asleep.

Even the food is carefully considered every day, with the soft diets often needed for dementia patients still presented as beautiful, recognisable meals through clever use of food moulds.


"These things require a bit more thought and effort to deliver but, for us, it is worth it because it all comes back to our philosophy – everyone deserves to have dignity in their later years and support to retain their independence for as long as possible," says Eady.

"While doing that, we also have a strong focus on supporting our residents with memory loss to safely integrate and be part of wider village life. Our memory loss unit is connected to the social areas of the village and residents are supported to join in activities and socialise – which is really important for them."

Rawhiti Estate also provides extensive support to families looking for care: "It can be a really difficult time for families tasked with making a big decision for their loved one," Martelli says.

"We understand that and offer residents the option of a trial period of a minimum 60-day stay to give everyone time to decide if Rawhiti Estate is the right long-term choice.

"We have a deep understanding of the unique needs of residents and families who experience memory loss; our doors are always open for people who want to drop in for a confidential discussion and tour of our facilities."

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