The Golden Years
Smart Design for Seniors
In many nations around the world, life expectancy is dramatically on the rise, and Australia is no exception. Depending on gender, where one resides and other considerations, Australian boys born in 2013 to 2015 are expected to live to 80.4 years, while girls born during the same time have an expected lifespan of 84.5 years, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Compared to the time period between 1881 and 1890, both boys and girls born today can expect to live much, much longer than their ancestors, approximately 33 and 34 years longer…
Compared to over a century ago — when the average male lifespan was just 47 — our expected longevity today is shockingly higher. In countries like Japan, it is even greater still, at almost 87 years for females. As lifespans continue to increase, so do the challenges that come with an aging population, ranging from persons outliving their pensions by decades, to healthcare needs, to appropriate accommodations for seniors who require constant care, to solutions for those who are still independent and able to live on their own.
With an estimated population of 24 546 269, the Australian population continues to grow, and along with it, an increasing number of seniors. The median age — the age where half the population is older, and half is younger — is 37.6, and has increased by three years over the past two decades. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), persons age 65 and over represent the fastest-growing age group, increasing from 11.6 per cent of the population in 1993 to 14.4 per cent, some 3.3 million people, in 2013.
In a featured piece from last June, Population by Age and Sex, Australia, States and Territories, the ABS states: “Over the next several decades, population ageing will have a range of implications for Australia, including health, size of the working-age population, housing and demand for skilled labour. Like most developed countries, Australia’s population is ageing as a result of sustained low fertility and increasing life expectancy. This has resulted in proportionally fewer children (under 15 years of age) in the population and a proportionally larger increase in those aged 65 and over.” Over the past 20 years, the number of persons aged 85 and over soared by 141.2 per cent, compared to a total population growth for the same period of 32.4 per cent.
While some believe that one way to bolster a younger demographic is through immigration, this is a long-term goal, and does not address the care and accommodation of Australia’s present seniors. Accommodating their needs takes the efforts of architects, builders, healthcare providers, various levels of government and others. And while many may consider our elders to be the octogenarians, the reality is Baby Boomers are seniors-in-waiting. Born in the period between 1946 and 1964, the eldest of this generation are already 71 as of this year; the youngest, 53.
Worldwide, organizations are addressing the urgent need to design to meet the needs of ageing populations. Some, like the London-based Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), readily acknowledge the changes in our needs as we grow older, and the need to create more “age-inclusive” spaces, ones which have a design sensibility meeting the needs of ageing populations. To address the issue, the RIBA has built a database of information from architects, academics, environment professionals, and others on designing for an ageing population.
In late 2009, a panel of experts known as HAPPI — Housing Our Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation — brought a message to the forefront: the United Kingdom is relatively unprepared to handle, and house, its older citizens. And worldwide, according to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers of adults 65 and older will double in the next 25 years. To accommodate the needs of this growing sector of the population, increasing resources need to be allocated to architectural design for the elderly.
Today, social realities and family expectations are vastly different from those of the past. Unlike previous generations which saw children, their parents, their grandparents, and even their great-grandparents live under the same roof, an increasing number of seniors today choose to live independently, not wishing to “be a burden” on their families. Despite these desires, the process of ageing continues, and brings with it issues such as reduced mobility due to arthritis, hearing and vision loss, and dementia.
Fortunately, some architects and designers are creating liveable spaces where the elderly can continue to live on their own, but in a safer and more user-friendly environment than in the past. This shift is termed transgenerational design, a term invented in 1986 by a professor at Syracuse University. Transgenerational design recognizes that aging is a natural process and considers not only aging but also the possibility of people of any age becoming disabled.
Bathrooms, bedrooms, and more
As we age, many of us will spend more and more time at home, particularly in the bedroom. While aesthetics are important, function is vital, and everything from heights of beds to dressers and chairs are important. Sometimes referred to as “ageing in place,” for those who choose to live in their own homes, bedrooms must we well-lit, preferably with two-way wall switches — one near the bed, at the appropriate height — so seniors can avoid getting up unnecessarily to turn lights on and off. Often, comfortable wall-to-wall carpeting, not loose mats, is preferable for both comfort and to reduce the risk of slip and falls. Equally important is the bathroom, particularly when it comes to safety.
Often referred to as the most dangerous room in the home, and the cause of thousands of emergency room visits every year, bathrooms can be especially perilous for the elderly. Poor vision, issues with walking, lack of strength and coordination, and other factors can be disastrous. Fortunately, much can be done to address these issues. Fixtures such as taps should be easy to turn, often achieved with levers or handles instead of knobs; single-handle shower faucets also reduce the risk of scalds from hot water. Shower heads should be adjustable to accommodate persons who stand or use a bathing stool. For wheelchair-bound users, sinks need to be mounted at the right height and have room beneath to allow access. And with walk-in tubs, seniors can bathe in comfort and safety.
In the event of an accident, some elderly men and women have highly visible, waterproof call buttons to press, and metal plates on bathroom doors which allow them to open in both directions, allowing first responders easy access.
Not only in the bathroom but other areas of the home, handrails and safety bars are an absolute must. Located next to toilets and sinks, and inside tub and shower enclosures, these bars not only assist with mobility and access, but can prevent falls. While some still have an industrial look to them, smaller bars and hand grips are available, and come in a number of designs and colours to complement home décor. To further encourage safety, floors should be absolutely level, preferably covered with surfaces other than slippery glazed tiles or marble. If this is not possible, non-slip rubberized mats which allow for drainage of water can be used.
In cases where someone is designing a house for themselves as they age, considerations such as wider hallways to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs come into consideration, along with fewer (or no) stairs, ramps, rails, and single, ground-level homes. In cases where an existing home is being retrofitted, much can still be done, such as non-skid floors, low-pile carpeting, reducing or eliminating thresholds, solid “landing” places such as well-placed tables or benches near front and back doors, improved lighting throughout the home, and even replacing doorknobs — which are often difficult to turn for arthritic hands — with handles, which can be installed quickly and at reasonable cost.
As the number of long-lived senior Australians continues to grow, designers, architects and builders will find themselves faced with the challenge of marrying aesthetics to functionality. The number of innovative elder care facilities will grow, but unlike ‘old age homes’ of the past, Baby Boomers will demand spacious facilities that meet their needs.
Unlike sterile residences out in the suburbs, newer construction will be within walking distances and public transit to restaurants, cafés, shopping, and entertainment. Airy spaces will be in demand, along with landscaped areas specifically designed for residents, complete with trees, benches, tables, and more to create a backyard-type setting. And inside, expect to see comfortable, large lounge areas with libraries and wireless high-speed Internet, flat-screen TVs, and more to replicate the comforts of home.
Australia’s population may be ageing, but the next generation of seniors, led by the Baby Boomers, will make many more demands of architects and designers than their grandparents ever did. As today’s architects, designers, and builders rise to the challenge, we will be watching to see where the intersection of need and innovation takes us next.