What is a reality lab?

The best care environment for residents and staff. This is the goal of the reality lab at Stureby Care Home, where researchers and caregivers are collaborating during day-to-day activities in the organisation. Lena Borell, Professor of Occupational Therapy at the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, explains what is really going on.

Lena Borell. Photo: Mattias Ahlm
Lena Borell. Photo: Mattias Ahlm

How does a reality lab differ from normal development activities in social care?

“In a reality lab, researchers are in the midst of the practical realities, working closely with care staff. The overall goal is to test innovative ideas in a real-world environment. Generally speaking, geriatric care has problems with assimilating new knowledge and discarding that which no longer works. The beauty of it is that the caregiver is involved and collaborates in the research. This makes it possible to achieve sustainable improvement where new knowledge is actually put to use.”

What is your role as a researcher in the reality lab?

“My role is to contribute new knowledge, apply it and then investigate how it affects the organisation in the real world. Interaction between people and their environment is a focus for the research. This is a matter of breaking down sweeping key values, such as respect, into more concrete elements such as how the environment is designed.

Can you provide an example?

“One important element is common areas and how these are utilised. What does respect mean in a situation where one person wants to watch television and another doesn’t? What do we do then? This new knowledge must be generalisable and usable at other care homes.”

What is your major focus at the moment?

“At the moment we are primarily examining these common areas. The majority of residents suffer from dementia disorders so the question is, what should these spaces look like so that they are both easy to understand and navigate, and pleasant. Currently, care homes are designed based on regulations governing things like room size and work environment, often taking hospitals or hotels as examples. However, over the coming years around 400 new care homes will need to be built in Sweden, so it is important that we gather more knowledge about them to provide the preconditions for good care.”

If you look forward, how will this work continue?

“The Common Space research project will continue throughout 2018. However, we are constantly coming up against new issues that we want to examine more closely. One upcoming project deals with questioning the need for staff uniforms. For staff, uniforms create a sense of identity but perhaps residents would feel more equal and involved if everyone wore normal clothing.”

Text: Johan Sievers, first published in Medicinsk Vetenskap no 1 2018