You would think that care homes and hospitals — two institutions of rest and recuperation — would be sanctuaries of silence, in order to allow guests to fully relax and focus on rejuvenation during their stay. After all, they need it — whether they are recovering from debilitating disease, or finding some well-deserved peace as they live out their golden years.
The reality of noise in health care institutions
Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. According to the Dementia Services Development Centre at the University of Stirling, noise levels in hospitals have increased over the last 40 years, seeing a rise from 57dB to 72dB1.
“Even in intensive care units, which cater to the most vulnerable patients, noise levels over 100dB have been measured,” says Dr. Andreas Xyrichis, senior lecturer at the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery, and Palliative Care in King’s College London. This level of noise is equivalent to the sound of loud music playing through headphones at full volume, the sound of snowmobiles, or the sound of a chainsaw2.
On average, every four in ten patients who are affected by noise in hospitals are checking themselves out to avoid it2. For good reasons, too, since their lives depend on it. Noise has an adverse effect on the recovery process, and has been linked to high blood pressure and increased pain sensitivity3. It can also have a negative effect on one’s mental health, which can develop into psychosis or hospitalisation-induced stress2.
Hospital staff affected by noise can also be a liability. Staff may experience fatigue, disrupted communication, and a dejected and emotionally exhausted mental state4. All of these can have a negative impact on staff performance and wellbeing, which in turn will compromise the quality of care that patients receive.
The truth is, coronary care patients treated during noisy periods were found to have a higher incidence of rehospitalisation, compared with those treated during quieter periods3. Dr. Xyrichis explains2, “People leave early, and long after discharge the trauma remains. It puts patients off coming back.”
Dealing with noise
Thankfully, hospitals are paying more attention to their acoustic design, and finding new strategies to address noise issues. One of the ways they are doing so is by installing insulation and acoustic tiles to reduce noise. For example, Forth Valley Royal Hospital makes use of stone wool acoustic ceiling tiles to help address internal noise issues5. Stone wool products are particularly good sound absorbers, and create a more desirable acoustic environment.
Another solution to noise pollution in such environments is to implement the use of Quiet Mark products. These are products that are specifically designed with low noise levels. A number of stone wool insulation products have been awarded this recognition, thus amplifying their status as excellent fixtures to reduce noise in hospitals. In addition, the first window with a 5dB noise reduction ability achieved Quiet Mark status in 20166, and would be beneficial in hospitals as well.
Care homes are not free from noise either. Caretakers experience the same impact that noise has on hospital staff, which similarly compromises the quality of care that older people in care homes receive.
What’s more, the aging population, especially those with dementia, can be susceptible to the negative effects of noise. Their weaker bodies make them more prone to the health risks that noise pollution poses — such as elevated blood pressure, stroke, and heart attacks.
Noise can also trigger the symptoms of dementia, and may lead to feelings of exclusion and confusion. This is because people suffering from dementia are less equipped to understand their sensory environment. Therefore, when noise proves to be overstimulating, they are easily agitated and may try to extract themselves from the situation7.
Given the large number of people that suffer from dementia, significant research is being conducted into crafting dementia-friendly homes. The Department of Health notes that sound absorbent materials “should be used for surfaces, fixtures, and fittings whenever possible as they can contribute to quieter, peaceful, and restful environments8.”
Examples of such measures include soundproof walls, acoustic tiles, and quiet rooms. Understanding the benefits of silence, and incorporating good design to promote it, will help us build better care homes that older folk can age comfortably in.
Three things to consider when designing quiet buildings
Summarily, The Social Care Institute for Excellence has outlined three key factors to consider when thinking about noise reduction and acoustics in a building7:
- Absorption: The extent to which sound is absorbed.
- Transmission: How sound is carried between one area and another, such as between rooms.
- Insulation: The extent to which walls, floors, and ceilings can stop noise being transmitted.
By curbing the problem of noise pollution in care homes and hospitals, we can forge more conducive environments for people to heal and take it easy. The last thing you’d want when you’re trying to rest is to stress about noise.