Bringing the past-and Alzheimer’s residents-to life

As senior living communities look for ways to improve the quality of life for their residents, “life skill stations” offer the opportunity to engage the portion of their population that faces the daily challenges of dementia. Whether embarking on the design-build process of a new construction project or analyzing ways to make community upgrades during these challenging economic times, interior designers can help integrate this unique feature within a memory-support facility.

Baby Station: An antique cradle, rocking chair, and baby doll help to recall memories of being a caregiver and nurturer

Goal: Spark memories

The goal of life skill stations is to create small vignettes that help dementia residents spark old memories and create activities that encourage interest, movement, and interaction. In the case of Querencia at Barton Creek, near Austin, Texas, the community was completing a phased construction project that included independent living units as well as assisted living units with a memory-support floor. While the life skill stations were not part of the original design, Executive Director Ross Dickmann knew they were a key feature that needed to be integrated to further support the quality of life of the residents.

Office Station: A vintage rolltop desk, telephone, and typewriter help to recall working at the office

“We know through experience and research that those who have dementia suffer memory loss with more recent events, as well as having difficulty finding the right words and phrases. Since long-term memory loss tends to be experienced later in the disease process, life skill stations are uniquely helpful in the retention of memories from years past,” Dickmann says. “I have witnessed firsthand the benefits and positive experiences life skill stations offer to those with dementia.”

As the designer on the project, I was familiar with the Hill Country interior design, as well as the client’s intentions for the life skill stations. While Dickmann had seen a number of successful vignettes, we decided to incorporate stations for office, vanity, baby care, hall tree, and kitchens throughout the dementia/Alzheimer’s floor at Querencia.

Brandy Abruzzo

Due to the L-shaped nature of the floor plan, the stations could be integrated seamlessly without disrupting the warm and comforting design of the interior. “They are easily accessible and highly visible,” Dickmann explains. “At Querencia as well as other facilities, I have observed the magnetic draw of the residents to these stations. This connection to their past creates enjoyment, fascination, pleasure, and curiosity, all in one. That is one of the great outcomes of this feature. The stations can also have a calming effect for those experiencing restlessness, agitation, or irritability.”

Identify reference point

When taking on a life skill station project, it is important to identify the generational reference point of the residents. Currently, many residents represent a mix of eras that have connections to the tail-end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War. Furthermore, Querencia played on its connections to Central Texas and a Western lifestyle. Finding articles of clothing, furniture, signage, housewares, technology, that simulate this period, as well as the specific geographical references, determines the success of these connections and memories. In addition, selected items need to be safe and easy for residents to use.

“Working with a design team brought a lot of creativity and a great use of color to the project,” Dickmann says. “They helped us recognize things that were safe and resident-friendly and made sure we stayed on point with the era of the resident we were serving.”

The stations at Querencia included some of these key items:

  • Office Station: A vintage rolltop desk, telephone, and typewriter help to recall working at the office.

  • Vanity Station: A vanity, antique mirror, and vintage jewelry conjure up memories of beauty and youthfulness for the female residents.

  • Hall Tree Station: A hall tree with military uniforms helps the male residents recall memories of serving their country.

  • Kitchen Station: A hutch and vintage cooking utensils allow female residents to recall memories of being a loving homemaker.

For those considering life skill stations in their communities, other options could include a Handyman Station with a tool box for the male residents to stimulate memories of hobbies such as woodworking; an Antique Sports Station might have similar effects. In addition, a Medical Station or Lawyer Station can help residents reference years of study and dedicated professional activity.

Regardless of the themes selected, this type of project is a team effort. A lot of thought and detail must be put into each station. The designer works with the administrator and nursing staff to determine the proper stations for the residents, and then incorporates the stations into the existing interior décor so it looks planned and not an afterthought. While three months is a preferred timeframe for the project, the life skill stations at Querencia took approximately two months to complete from start to finish. The stations do require maintenance and upkeep in order to stay fresh and intriguing as well as era-appropriate.

“The investment required for this type of project is small in comparison to its return,” Dickmann explains. “Don’t be afraid to try it; you can do it. Economically, anyone who puts in earnest effort will see results.”

As the first wave of the Baby Boomer generation starts to enter these communities, the life skill stations will need to evolve to reflect their specific long-term memories and items of comfort. No matter how the details of the stations evolve, however, one thing remains the same: Life skill stations engage residents socially, encourage cognitive exercises, help sustain long-term memories, and improve residents’ quality of life.

Brandy Abruzzo is an affiliate of Studio 121, Nashville, Tennessee, and has more than 10 years experience as an interior designer.

For more information, phone (615) 469-4121, email, or visit To send your comments to the editor, e-mail

Long-Term Living 2009 September;58(9):18-21

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia , Articles