MU professor puts new spin on traditional nursing home living

The seminar advocated aggressive involvement in nursing home environments.

An MU professor shared her experiences housing a loved one in a nursing home, a situation many families encounter, during a seminar Thursday night.

Ruth Brent Tofle, chairwoman of the Department of Architectural Studies, found herself on the front line of that battle when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and given a prognosis of three weeks to live.

Moving into a nursing home came at a price for Tofle's mother, who once said the best death would be to die in her sleep in her own bed. Tofle, an interior designer, took on the challenge of transforming the room where her mother spent her last days into a replica of her mother’s home.

“The room was not much bigger than a hospital room,” Tofle said. "Not all the light bulbs worked, and I knew walking in that a lot of people had died there. It was pretty grim.”

From there, Tofle began reshaping the room by accentuating natural light, adding plants and familiar furnishing, art and most importantly, meaningful objects.

“Design does make a difference,” Tofle said. “Interiors constantly communicate messages. Like a billboard, like flashing lights that are being decoded based on experiences.”

Tofle emphasized the importance of details of the environment for the terminally ill. Tofle placed dolls and quilts that her mother had made and were important to her around the room.

“The whole sensory process: the smell, the touch and the taste are important," Tofle said.

Although the permanent elements of a nursing home room cannot be manipulated, the addition of sentimental pieces from the home can assist in how the resident feels about the room, Tofle said.

“The message is home, and to identify the formation to home is a psychological connection to place,” Tofle said.

Being at the nursing home with access to meals, cleaning services and healthcare services allowed Tofle to spend less time caretaking and more time just being with her mother.

“I think a nursing home can be a very good place to die," Tofle said. "It’s the addition of the personal elements that can make it a good death."

Toward the end of the seminar, Tofle challenged others to put a new spin on nursing homes.

"I’m here today to advocate that you can nurture others in a nursing home with aggressive involvement," Tofle said.

Tofle discussed the importance of open communication with her mom. She promised her mother that she would not keep secrets from her. This ideal was well-received by one attendee of the seminar.

“None of us get out of this alive," said David Oliver, assistant director of MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging. "I think it behooves us to think of a plan. We want people to know how we want to die."

Tofle's goal is to eradicate the stigma that nursing homes cannot provide the comforts of a more traditional home setting.

“The most wonderful deathbed can be possible if it’s made to order for you," Tofle said.

Tofle has published her conclusions about health care environments in the “Aging, Autonomy, and Architecture: Advances in Assisted Living” and “Color in Health Care Environments.”

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