Sometimes, interior designers feel like crying. In town, passing the glazed facade of a retirement home, I was struck by the resigned weariness on the faces: it sadly reflected the coldness of the bare walls. Souls in pain in a glacial desert. Where life should continue smoothly in a friendly environment, a lack of individualism and hygienic necessities have transformed retirement homes into lifeless and joyless places. And yet, there are some simple solutions which would greatly improve the environment of the elderly. Retro wallpaper is one of them: promoting happy memories, it contributes to the residents’ well-being, it can be used in almost every room - be it shared areas or individual spaces - and its many colours and patterns provide a wide and relevant choice. The advice I give here in terms of decorating dependent or non-dependent pensioners’ facilities also applies to elderly people’s own homes, shared accommodation between elderly and very elderly people, shared houses, intergenerational shared accommodation, etc.
The benefits of retro wallpaper in a retirement home
Wallpaper provides a warm, safe family atmosphere
Choosing to cover the walls with plain paint is often the easy option... which doesn’t take into account the specific needs of the occupiers. Unlike an anxiety-inducing hospital coldness, wallpaper surrounds the resident with a reassuring family home atmosphere: with texture and colourful patterns, it contributes to a comfortable and warm mood; by making the rooms cosier, it creates a feeling of safety which is as necessary for the elderly as kindness and care. The quality of the wallpaper can also play a part in improving acoustics to provide more privacy.
Wallpaper introduces nature into seniors’ residences
Many elderly people have lived in a rural environment for most or all of their lives. Yet there are very few facilities benefiting from naturally calming green surroundings. Why not introduce nature into the home with wallpapers with botanical patterns?
Retro wallpaper is a real tranquiliser!
Who doesn’t like to remember sweet moments from the past? Because of its association with memories, retro wallpaper is always comforting: it is reminiscent of a familiar atmosphere, a well-known era, a safe environment... Grandma’s loving embrace! The vintage style of the 50s, 60s or 70s is particularly well suited to provide positive energy. It evokes the happy years after the war and sexual liberation, reminds the elderly of their youth, and provides zest for life and optimism! As a result, it contributes to care home residents’ good health by significantly reducing mental distress and psychosomatic disorders.
Retro wallpaper triggers old people’s memory
“This wallpaper looks like the one in my nursery...” By creating an environment similar to previously known surroundings, retro wallpaper stimulates a failing memory and provides a sense of calm. By avoiding monotony, it makes people dream, stimulates the imagination, and promotes creativity. Detailed illustrations and regular wallpaper patterns also promote concentration and increase the power of observation for residents with cognitive disorders (often degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease). Wallpaper patterns can even be used to encourage speech, to interact with people with communication issues.
Personalised wallpapers contribute to residents’ well-being
Many retirement homes offer their residents the opportunity to bring some their own furniture. Why not go further and also provide them with the opportunity to decorate their rooms to their personal taste, reflecting their interests and their personality? Wallpaper can personalise individual areas, set rooms apart from each other and make any living space one’s own. Décors which recreate snippets of the environment residents are used to (the view from their window, a landmark from their old neighbourhood, their front door) could help them to feel more at home. As it is rarely possible to personalise bed linen, retirement homes (and not just the most upmarket ones) would benefit from letting their guests choose their own wallpaper. Money spent on this mark of consideration towards the resident would certainly be worth it for the well-being of everyone, staff included!
The benefits of retro wallpaper for the caregiver’s work
The therapeutic effect of their environment on the residents also has an obvious impact on the retirement home staff who unfortunately are all too often overworked. If the elderly person is relaxed, caregivers can work in a more serene atmosphere. Their working conditions improve greatly.
Which rooms in care homes is wallpaper suitable for?
What are the specific technical regulations for retirement homes?
As with any facility open to the public, regulations regarding security, hygiene, and the manner in which a room is used must be considered. Elderly people’s homes are subject to fire safety standards: in Europe, the EU classification "B-s1" (non-flammable or hardly flammable) is used; outside of Europe, each country has its own classification regarding fire safety. Hygiene requirements for medical facilities and heavily used premises make robust washable or highly washable wallpapers a better choice depending on the wallpapered rooms. Yet it is obvious that the activities of an elderly person living permanently in a retirement home are moderate and life will be a rather slow pace – which will preserve their surroundings from rapid damage.
Which common rooms can be decorated with wallpaper?
Wallpaper is a way of differentiating shared areas and circulation areas: it helps the occupiers to tell the difference between the rooms and to identify the floors. In the entrance or the hallway, a panoramic wallpaper is a beautiful décor which makes residents as well as visitors feel welcome. In the corridors, patterns and colours can help identify the floors. To protect the wallpaper in these heavily used areas, it should preferably be put up above a moulding. In the dining room, it will help create a friendly mood, even stimulate the appetite. In the (reading, television, games, music) lounge(s), it will create a safe and warm homely feeling. In physical mobility and craft rooms, the wall décor will help with motivation, inspiration, and stimulation of the senses. For the nursery (if one is paired with the retirement home), kids’ wallpaper - which is loved by most old people as it reminds them of their own childhood – is most suitable.
Which walls can be wallpapered in retirement home bedrooms?
The bedroom is where the elderly person spends most of their time, it’s their haven. As in a hospital, the layout is almost always the same: door opposite the window, bathroom in the corner by the entrance, headboard against a lateral wall, television against the other. In some places wallpaper is used to enliven and personalise the bedrooms, most commonly just on one wall. The usual choice, behind the bed, doesn’t seem appropriate though: not only will the wallpaper not really be seen by anyone bedridden, but damages are unavoidable (due to the bed, bedside table or medical appliances bumping into the wall). If the wall opposite the bed is wallpapered, the resident can really enjoy it and the television is less noticeable. Of course, another possibility is to wallpaper a corner of the bedroom to create a cocooning nook (behind a table or an armchair for instance).
How do you choose the retro wallpaper patterns and colours for a retirement home?
Choosing a retro wallpaper which is gentle on elderly people’s eyes
We tend to ignore it all too often: eyesight deteriorates with old age. The elderly might even become visually impaired. It is essential that the wall décor helps stimulate their eyesight without “assaulting” their eyes. It’s all about striking the right balance! So, anything too aggressive for the eyes should be avoided: geometric patterns with optical effects, XXL patterns, garish colours (careful with 70s eccentricities!). “Bad complexion” colours are also to be avoided (anise green, chick yellow, salmon pink). To highlight the shapes and emphasise the colours, contrasts should be created by combining pastel shade wallpapers with bolder colours, or dark wallpapers with white door/window frames.
Choosing a retro wallpaper which supports elderly people’s mental health
The choice of wallpaper should aim to promote relaxation. As retirement homes often accommodate residents who are prone to confusion, anything that can induce disorientation or anxiety is to be avoided: special effect materials, “scary” motifs or shapes that can be seen as frightening. The wallpaper must be comforting, not confusing. Therefore, you will look for retro designs bringing to mind happy memories without causing nostalgia, letting the mind wander without provoking regrets. Once again, it’s all about striking the right balance! The monotony of stripes can be boring or sad... and the coconut palm trees laden with disappointment... Let’s just go to a forest in bloom!
Choosing a retro wallpaper for common rooms
In rooms where residents meet at various times of the day, the wall covering should appeal to as many people as possible. The easy option often leads to choosing a plain wall décor. But within the extensive range of retro wallpapers on the market it is easy to find stylish and warm wallpaper models which almost everyone can agree on. For dining rooms and corridors, light shades stimulating the appetite and increasing brightness are an excellent choice. Fresh spring wallpapers (e.g. flowers on a white background) or models in the country house style would be perfectly suitable. In lounges, darker hues would create a cosier atmosphere. Some classic designs from the past are certainly very popular, such as the timeless Toile de Jouy or the famous decorative patterns by William Morris, pioneer of Art Nouveau.
Choosing retro wallpaper for residents’ bedrooms
Unlike the common rooms, bedrooms are more suitable for some of the more imaginative wallpaper designs. The motto is always “originality without eccentricity”, i.e. to offer styles suitable for a variety of people (total or partial personalisation is only relevant for very few facilities). Perhaps the home will have four or five different wallpapers for all the bedrooms, perhaps each room will have its own individual décor? Maybe the question of the “wallpaper genre” will have to be considered? For a very gentle, timeless mood, there is a wide variety of quaint wallpapers reproducing vintage models, a bit faded (with dulled or pastel hues), that could be found in old family homes. For a livelier style, it is easy to find wallpaper from the decades of elderly people’s younger years, e.g. the trendy 60s, 70s, 80s... There is also a plethora of colour variations.
What better therapeutic support to sweeten the last years of the elderly than a comforting and harmonious living environment?
About the author: Laure Mestre, À TOUS LES ÉTAGES (AT EVERY FLOOR)
Originally trained in economy and history of society, Laure Mestre set her interior design and architecture consulting agency “À tous les étages” up in the Paris (France) region. In her work with private individuals as well as communities, she endeavours to reconcile functional spaces with harmony, practicality, and beauty. Because every accommodation is there to house people, the human factor is the focus of all of her projects.