A new multidisciplinary field has emerged in several universities in which sociologists, psychologists and urban planners work to tailor architectural designs to seniors as that demographic continues to grow.
In America, 54 million people are over the age of 55 and that number is predicted to increase over the next 30 years by nearly 50 per cent. Despite most people’s desire to age in their own homes, most will be required to seek alternative arrangements.
Essentially, designing for seniors means designing for everyone as younger people will eventually reach senior status. Designing for the future, architects are now considering how to use aging as a form of inspiration.
“Typically, when architects design a building, they are designing it for its first users,” says Georgeen Theodore, associate professor and director of the Infrastructure Planning Program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Theodore says housing design and community infrastructure need to accommodate change over the years.
“We have a responsibility to train the next generation of architects to think about accessibility and housing flexibility,” she says. “It shouldn’t just be a niche market for older adults, but part of the larger project of housing.”
Theodore asked her students to consider ways to accommodate the needs of senior citizens by making cities and architecture more interconnected, more accessible, healthier and more social.
One proposal was a two-family house divided into a smaller section and a larger section. The smaller section would be ideal for a younger couple early in life. Moving into the larger section to raise a family, they could generate revenue by leasing the smaller unit. Upon retirement or when the couple’s children moved out, they could then return to the smaller unit.
Several other ideas such as a power scooter-sharing program, multi-generational parks and playgrounds and increased space for scooters or walkers on pathways were also considered.
Aurea Osgood, a professor of Sociology at Winona State University has considered ways to make a perfect world for the elderly, or an ‘eldertopia.’ She found that small changes such as wheelchair accessibility on public buses were just as important as accessible housing. Ultimately, elders want to stay connected with their communities, not be written off as they age.
Eliminating physical barriers and integrating more automatic doors and ramps is essential, as are simple things like lowering light switches on the wall to make them easier to access.
“Design for yourself and take into account that moving and socialising will get harder. Architecture, urbanism, and products and services need to compensate for that,” says University of Pennsylvania professor Matthias Hollwich.
With a stressed planet and an aging population, sustainability and designing for the elderly are the two biggest challenges for today’s architects.
“It is important to remember that the architecture design should not just be considered support of all these efforts, but more of an enabler for new potential,” Hollwich says.