Favorable Surroundings for the Elderly

New models to live in a community

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It has been proven that there is a direct correlation between architectonic design and well-being. Consequently, the creation of positive environments is one of the axes in the composition of favorable surroundings for elderly people.

Old age is characterized by many changes that are reflected in the body, the various sensorial systems and, most critically, in the brain itself. We can summarize these into four aspects: hearing, sight, physical changes and cognitive function.

When constructed environments are being planned, whether urban spaces or buildings, all these factors and changes related to growing old should be considered in order to create a friendly physical environment for the elderly population.

The importance of the physical space in the creation of positive environments

Society’s demands have changed: we are no longer homogeneous communities and globalization is beginning to transform customs and traditions that are altering our reality, which is nothing more than a snapshot of the real world. For example, old people who are alone, with a partner, vegetarians, smokers or with diverse ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds.

The challenge is to pay attention to this diversity and understand that there are new ways of growing old, ways as diverse as the ways in which we have lived. The changes in the population bring with them a new concept of growing old, which has to be active, healthy and without stereotypes.

The new proposals should be designed based on each person’s reality. There should be conventional housing designed inclusively for any type of users and specialized housing where users can have an active and independent lifestyle with the support of some services, depending on the needs of each individual. In the new accommodation models, what is offered to the person is not a room but a place in which to live, orienting the designs towards the combination of the “own home” concept with that of “care home.”

There are diverse experiences at an international level, notably cohousing, which refers to collaborative housing with cooperative management and under a grant of use regime. Other trends include the possibility of older people and disabled people not leaving their homes or their surroundings if they need long-term care (“aging in place”). Returning to residential homes that provide accommodation for people with a greater need for care, a good example would be Hogeweyk, a village specifically designed as a care center for older people with dementia, where they can continue autonomous and independent activity within a controlled and safe environment.

Healthcare center for the elderly population in Balaguer, Spain
Healthcare center entrance façade, Balaguer, Vitaller Arquitectos. Photo © Adrià Garriga Far

Objectives of design for older people

For the design of these types of rooms, the choice of place is a fundamental piece of the puzzle: living in an urban environment, easy to identify and which are characteristic of belonging to the community. If we zoom in further, there are two initially opposing but necessary considerations, such as the private spaces—apartment, bedroom and bathroom—in which to be alone, to preserve privacy or to receive visitors in more individual and personal surroundings. By contrast, spaces for social interaction are also necessary, meeting points to practice group indoor activities (library, lounge, dining room) or outdoor activities within controlled surroundings (porches, gardens, accessible rooftops, recreational areas).

Control over the conditions of comfort directly affects sight and hearing: the use of absorbent and acoustic materials that prevent reverberation or the use of quieter climate control systems; control of artificial light settings to ensure good lighting but which also avoid glare. Exterior windows not only favor the entry of natural light but also facilitate natural ventilation and refresh the air in the rooms.

In order to be able to grow old in the same way as we have lived, design has to consider promoting autonomy through universal accessibility. In other words, any type of person can use the space regardless of their physical and cognitive capabilities. As such, there must be good signage in the spaces so they can be easily identified by means of posters or transparencies.

All this must be accompanied by the design of friendly towns with vital components to encourage older people to stay committed to their local community. This includes: accessible public transport, level pavements, places to sit, safety and security in spaces, parks and shared spaces, good public lighting and the availability of public toilets.

The positive transformation of growing old should have a response from architecture. Design has to be part of this process of change and redefining old age, where people and their dignity are the main object of the design, achieving accessible, comfortable, safe, meaningful, and above all, inclusive surroundings.

Main image: Differentiated social spaces: residential care home, Sant Hilari Sacalm, Vitaller Arquitectos. Photo © Adrià Garriga Far

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