The importance of colour and contrast in dementia

May 6, 2015

Many of the 840,000 people in the UK and Republic of Ireland who are living with dementia will experience difficulties with their sight and perception as a result of their condition and the natural ageing process. Difficulties with sight and perception can cause people to misinterpret the world around them, further fuelling the confusion and isolation they’re already feeling. The use of different colours, particularly those that contrast, has been proven to make life a little easier for Alzheimer’s patients.

How do we perceive colour?

Our perception of colour is dependent on the pigment colour of objects and the way in which they reflect light. There are the three primary colours: red, yellow, and blue, and three secondary colours: orange, green, and purple. These six colours vary along three dimensions: hue, value, and chroma, as follows:

  • Hue: This is what we refer to as ‘colour’ and is made up from one or more of the primary and secondary colours.
  • Value: The lightness or darkness of a colour. Tint is the lightness of a colour when white is added; shade is the darkness when black is added.
  • Chroma: This is the brilliance or purity of the colour, with the primary colours having the brightest chroma.

colour wheel

(image source)


When we talk about contrast between colours we need to take into account the contrast of hue, e.g. the contrast between red and yellow. We also need to think about the contrast of light and dark when different shades and tints are next to each other, for example dark red and pink which are different values of the same hue.


How can colour help Alzheimer’s patients?

There are a number of ways in which you can use colour and contrast to make life easier for someone who is living with dementia:

  • Highlight important elements – Use prominent colour contrast to add clarity to the environment, for example chairs should be a contrasting colour to the floor, sinks and toilets must contrast with the wall and floor, and table settings must contrast with the table or tablecloth.
  • Reduce unwanted visuals – As dementia progresses and the patient loses touch with who they were, there’s a real risk of them wandering off on their own and getting lost. Use colour and pattern with low contrast to make exit doors recede into the background and become more inconspicuous.

dementia ward

(Dementia ward design for the NHS )


  • Use colour to highlight risks – For someone living with dementia, changes in hue and value can often be perceived to be changes in floor level. Avoid patterned carpets, especially striped or chequered, which could be perceived as holes in the ground. Instead use block colours of flooring to highlight ramps, steps etc.
  • Define the environment with contrast – Things such as floors, skirting boards, walls, and stairs should all clearly contrast with one another so that they’re easily distinguished.
  • Ensure thresholds don’t contrast – If the flooring in one room contrasts with the flooring in the next room it could be perceived as a change in floor level. Try to ensure that the flooring for rooms and areas that lead into each other are the same colour so that it is perceived as a continuous level surface.


Colour and mood


(image source)


As well as helping to sharpen the environment for dementia sufferers, colour also has an impact on mood and feelings. Everyone has their own favourite colours, and particular colours that evoke memories, but as a general rule of thumb the following colours encourage these reactions:

  • Blue: Cool colours like blue make a room feel bigger, and have a calming and restful effect, so they’re often used for bedrooms and quiet areas.
  • Green: This earthy colour is associated with growth and life, and is thought to reduce activity in the central nervous system and help people to feel calmer.
  • Red: This warm colour has the opposite effect to blue, making a room feel smaller so it is often used for rooms that are cool in temperature. It’s also a highly stimulating colour which is often used in activity areas to increase brain wave activity and stimulate the production of adrenaline.
  • Orange: Another warm colour with similar properties to red. Orange is also an earthy colour so is often used in natural environments.
  • Yellow: This is another stimulating colour which is used in activity areas to increase brain wave activity. Stimulating colours are good for Alzheimer’s patients as they can trigger memories and cognitive function.

Here at UKS Mobility we stock a variety of products designed to help people with dementia to live a safe and comfortable life. Please browse our range of dementia care products, and don’t hesitate to contact us if there’s anything else that you’d like to know.