Montreal facilities use optical illusions to keep dementia patients from wandering off

At first glance, it may look like a nicely painted wall, a bookshelf or even a store. But there's something else behind the murals popping up in long-term care institutions in Montreal: a way to keep dementia patients from trying to run away.

More long-term care institutions using colourful murals to distract patients and keep them calm

Angela Novembre, left, and Connie De Riggi ​both work in long-term care institutions in Montreal. They say the murals help to keep patients calm. (Sean Henry/CBC)

At first glance, it may look like a nicely painted wall, a bookshelf or even a store.

But there's really something else behind the murals popping up in long-term care institutions (CHSLDs) in Montreal — a creative way to keep dementia patients from trying to run away.

Angela Novembre, a department head at the CHSLD Dante in the Rosemont–​La Petite-Patrie borough, said that happens all too often.

"Some of the nursing homes offer a unit that is designated for Alzheimer's [patients]," she explained. "They want to leave the unit. They want to go look for their family. They want to go look for their children. They want to look for their pets. So they are always trying to leave."

Behind this yellow cabinet is actually an elevator. (Radio-Canada)

The centres are equipped with an "anti-runaway system," which involves each patient wearing a magnetic key bracelet that gives them access to certain areas.

The murals are designed to mask doors that lead to areas that are off-limits to patients without supervision, such as outside the building.

The real concern isn't that patients will actually walk off, says Novembre. It's about avoiding the upsetting moment when they realize they can't leave.

Nathalie Boudart, a unit chief at the CHSLD Joseph-François Perrault, in Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension, said that patients become agitated when they begin to feel like they're trapped.

"Imagine that you want to leave your house, but you can't get out. You'd feel like a prisoner and it would cause some anxiety. So by simply walking by the door without trying to open it because of the optical illusion, that anxiety is avoided."

Boudart said more and more centres are turning to this method, while some locations have had murals like this for nearly a decade. Similar ones are currently used at care centres in Gatineau, Magog and Coaticook.

The hidden doors help distract patients who would otherwise get upset upon realizing that they can't leave. (Radio-Canada)

With conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's, patients may have an easier time remembering things from their past than something that happened more recently.

This's part of what inspired the old-fashioned styles of some of the murals, like one at the CHSLD Joseph-François Perrault that is painted to look like a general store.

"We try to use paintings that encourage them to reminisce about old memories," said Boudart.

When a patient comes face to face with the murals, they often don't notice the door handles or elevator buttons. They simply carry on walking, she explained.

The murals have been proven to help reduce incidents in which staff are forced to intervene with a patient who is frustrated about not being able to leave, she said.

This door is painted to look like an old general store, complete with products. (Radio-Canada)

The murals also help to stimulate the patients, said Connie De Riggi, ​who works as an educator at CHSLD Dante.

"When they do get to the murals, they see all different colours and designs," she said.

She compared the murals to "camouflage," saying that while their intent might seem obvious to an outside observer, the murals really help keep the patients calm.

The paintings hide the doors and keep patients from feeling trapped. 0:48

With files from CBC's Sean Henry