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Finding the Familiar: Designing Suitable Spaces for Dementia Patients

A visit with Benyamin Schwarz, Professor, Architectural Studies

By Molly Duffy
Published: - Topics: architecture dementia Department of Architectural Studies environmental gerontology

In the 1960s, schools of architecture started teaching that their discipline wasn’t just about beauty or efficiency or design — it was about people. One of the most important innovations that emerged in that era was the field of environment and behavior studies, which holds that the needs of human beings should dictate architectural design. When Benyamin Schwarz became a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, he chose to study Environmental Gerontology, and this became his life’s work. “You’re doing something to improve the world,” Schwarz says. “And that’s basically the aim of architecture, after all.”

Now a professor of architectural Studies at MU, Schwarz notes that environmental gerontology, also referred to as “design for the aging,” aims to influence the creation of appropriate places for the burgeoning elderly population, a problem, Schwarz asserts, that looms over the entire world. “The idea of this field is that when you design purposely-built places for elderly people, you need to be aware of their specific abilities and disabilities,” he explains. “To try to be able to support their needs and to try to create places that address the special needs in various ways.”

“Fortunately we live, nowadays, longer,” he says. “But unfortunately, there are all kinds of diseases that in the past were, maybe, unheard of. And when I talk about elderly people, we all get there, if we are lucky enough. With it comes all kind of problems.” As we grow older, we’re more likely to experience heart problems, endure respiratory complications, suffer from a stroke, or develop dementia. Designing living quarters with certain accommodations, like wide door frames to fit wheelchairs and single-story layouts to avoid stairs, will allow people to “age in place,” he states.

For people like dementia patients, who need a greater level of care and may not be able to remain in their homes, Schwarz believes that the key design issue is to emulate the places and environments that provide some sense of normalcy where they can continue their lives. Architecture and interior design are integral to providing that familiar feeling for residents, and techniques like redundant cuing can help. Schwarz mentions placing the bathroom in an obvious, visible place in an apartment as one way to “cue” residents to use certain facilities. It also helps to have a place where residents can carry out their own everyday tasks, like baking, folding laundry, and setting the table.

We are all a product of our environments, he remarks. Born in what is now the Czech Republic to two survivors of the Holocaust, Schwarz credits his own upbringing for shaping his attitude toward people and society as a whole. “I was always aware of what can happen in society and how people can treat other people in terms of discrimination and racism, if you talk about the Nazi era,” he remembers. All of the relatives of Schwarz’s parents perished in the Holocaust. While his parents worked to recover financially from World War II, Communism swept into Eastern Europe. They fled to Israel as refugees, where Schwarz grew up on a kibbutz.

He didn’t start his university studies until he was 24 or 25 years old, and graduated from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology when he was 29. “So when I have students nowadays who are telling me at the age of 21 they are too old, they need to get out of here because work is waiting for them, I say, calm down,” Schwarz laughs.

After working a while at an architecture firm and then running his own office, Schwarz decided to change course and became an Israeli diplomat in Detroit. Part of his work was visiting Michigan universities and promoting programs in Israel. On one of his visits to the University of Michigan, he met the chair of the doctoral program in architecture, Lee Pastalan, who asked Schwarz to come study with him. Schwarz declined, “But he was very clever. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you take the application forms? Maybe you’ll think about it down the road and maybe you’ll apply.’”

As planned, Schwarz returned to Israel. A year later, when he was accepted by the doctoral program at the University of Michigan’s school of architecture, he moved his family back to the United States. “Everybody in my office thought that I was crazy,” he recalls. “I mean, I had it all. Many architects don’t get to the situation where you employ 20 people and you run the show…I decided to skip it and go to further my education.”

Schwarz earned a graduate degree and his PhD at the University of Michigan. The Technion Israel Institute of Technology wanted to hire him but couldn’t find funding. So Schwarz took a position at MU.

Schwarz has stretched himself to give as much as he can to his students. For many years, he taught four classes per semester. Currently he has 15 doctoral students. He is the editor of the Journal for the Housing of the Elderly. Since 1993, he has edited or authored 13 books (and English is his third language). “So you ask me how I do these things,” he says. “That’s why I have white hairs. It comes with the territory. This is something that we do here.”

Someday, that white hair might be coupled with other signs of aging. Schwarz doesn’t believe the U.S. is exceptional when it comes to caring for our elderly, but he’s working to change that. “As much as we would all like to live in our homes to the last minute, until we die —and I’m one of the people who do not want to be caught alive in a nursing home,” he says. “But it won’t necessarily happen to all of us, unfortunately, if we develop those problems that we just talked about. Therefore, we need to build decent facilities and provide services to older people with dignity, just like in their homes.”