How dementia changes the way you hear the world

A black and white photo of a room speakers playing sounds into a with many panels mounted on stands.

A steady stream of visitors at the National Dementia Convention in Melbourne have been curious to experience the noises bouncing between 24 sound panels.

But most don’t stay long, and Anthony Clarke couldn’t be happier at seeing their obvious discomfort – as long as he can ask them why.

A new approach to building

Mr Clarke is one of a team of architects investigating new ways to design spaces for people living with physical and mental impairment.

In this case, the architects collaborated with international acoustic engineer Nick Boulter to construct an approximation of how someone with dementia hears the world.

An older woman sits in a dark room.PHOTO: Distorted hearing as a result of dementia can be frightening for sufferers. (Supplied: Christian Langballe)

The result is a bewildering cacophony that bombards visitors from all directions.

“I’ve been talking to people and saying: do come on down to see this installation, and I promise you, you won’t enjoy it!” says Mr Boulter, laughing.

“It’s something I’m proud of, and ashamed of, in the same sentence really.”

The acoustician walked around Melbourne gathering the audio detritus of modern urban life — traffic, school yards, cafes, TVs and trains — then blended and distorted the sounds.

Mr Clarke says for people with dementia, this is how the world might sound.

“They go to cafes, and they choose the quiet times to meet their friends,” he says.

“And as soon as another couple comes in, they can’t focus and they want to leave.”

Inside the installation

Using specialist speakers embedded in panels made of corrugated iron, foam, mesh and plastics, the sound is beamed around the room.

It ricochets off other panels, hitting the listener on one side, before suddenly appearing elsewhere.

For those who ventured into the installation it was like being under aural attack.

A black and white photo of a room speakers playing sounds into a with many panels mounted on stands.PHOTO: Panels of various materials were used to bounce sounds around the room in unusual ways. (Supplied: Bloxas Architects)

According to Tanya Petrovich from Victoria’s branch of Dementia Australia that’s exactly how the world feels for those dealing with the cognitive decline of that disease.

Dr Petrovich says nursing homes are one of the most confronting environments for people living with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

“I challenge you to sit in their lounge for a little while,” she says.

“The noise of people walking through with trolleys, medications, busy doing their duties of caring for people … in the meantime the people they’re caring for are listening to that, in the background.

“If I’m a person with dementia I’m thinking ‘I need to get out of here’. But my cognitive processes don’t allow me to make the next move.

“I know I want to get out, but I’m not sure how to get out, nor am I able to … I’m stuck there.”

Link between sound and aggression

Dr Petrovich believes the cognitive overload of excess noise in these institutions leads to residents with dementia sometimes lashing out physically with frustration.

Her concerns are backed up in a study released this week examining verbal abuse, violence and deaths in aged care facilities.

It found almost 90 per cent of residents involved in resident-to-resident aggression had a diagnosis of dementia.

“Someone might strike someone when they come up and say something to them that they don’t understand — they might hit out because they’re so frustrated,” Dr Petrovich says.

“And then we say: ‘There’s aggression. Where is this aggression coming from?’ Perhaps we have to sit back and think a bit.”

Australia has roughly 413,000 dementia sufferers, but this form of cognitive impairment is predicted to affect one million of us by 2050.

Mr Clarke believes noisy spaces like supermarkets may need to change their design — or face a future downturn in sales to older shoppers.

“Maybe it could mean reorientating the way people move through it, or reorientating shelving or packaging,” he says.

“Saying to them, ‘Are you aware of what this is going to do to your back pocket?’ Maybe that’s a way of hitting that market.”