14/03/2017 07:39 GMT | Updated 15/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Bringing Creativity To Senior Care

Jeff Vinnick via Getty Images

Recently, we visited our Aunt Pat at her nursing home to celebrate her 80th birthday. Marc's five-year-old daughter Lily-Rose had seen the tiny rooms and lonely seniors there before, and this time insisted we bring a box of teddy bears as gifts.

Stuffed animals are a childish solution, but the mind of a five-year-old might be exactly what elder care needs. What about a facility designed by Disney? It's just one of the creative solutions popping up around the world, proving that engaging, personalised environments improve quality of life, health and longevity for seniors.

Living conditions are especially important for more than 850,000 UK citizens living with dementia--a term for any chronic disorder, such as Alzheimer's, that impairs memory, reasoning and cognitive function. As dementia takes its toll, patients become far more sensitive to their environment. Unfamiliar settings increase anxiety and stress, leading to agitation and even violent outbursts which are treated with drugs and physical restraint.

Health problems related to dementia have actually replaced heart disease as the number one cause of death in England and Wales. Researchers in the U.S. have found that as many as half of seniors with Alzheimer's die within a year of being admitted to standard long-term care facilities. The sudden disruption in routine, a lack of activity and socialisation leads to depression, and lessens the will to live. Various health care models around the world are working to change this, building facilities that preserve daily activities and social integration.

Hogewey, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, is a village whose 152 residents are all dementia patients. Founded in 2009, the 'town' has a cinema, restaurant, hair salon and shops. Under the discretely watchful eye of staff, residents go about their business, dining, shopping and socialising. Hogewey staff report their residents require fewer medications and live longer than those in standard assisted living facilities.

Hogewey is one of the inspirations behind Aegis Living--a privately-owned assisted living company in Seattle, Washington. Founder Dwayne Clark spent 30 years working in the assisted living and studying seniors' care in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Clark hired designers from Disney Imagineering to create an indoor community with classical Queen Anne architecture. A road featuring stores, a juice bar and a theatre simulates the streets where his Seattle residents grew up.

Hogeway was partly funded by the Dutch government, while Aegis Living is privately-owned. The UK's senior care model is a mix of public and private. But already, facilities across the UK are learning from Hogeway's model.

A care home in Suffolk added a replica high street to its facility in 2014, complete with real shops and a post office. In December, the county council of Northamptonshire announced its intention to build a full dementia village, similar to Hogeway.

Teddy bears may not be practical, and the minds behind Mickey Mouse may not be affordable for the health care system. But the UK can definitely spring for more creativity when it comes to caring for our beloved aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE Movement, including the year-long educational programme WE Schools and the youth empowerment event WE Day. Watch the WE Day UK live stream on 22 March at