Aging in (a Safer) Place

How Architecture can help us live longer and better, even during a pandemic.
By Bea Spolidoro, AIA, WELL AP | Principal at Fisher ARCHitecture 

Aging-in-place has become the preferred option for many when planning for their own future. Independence is precious. This said, entering a dedicated facility is an extreme step that for many families, unfortunately, often becomes the only feasible and safe option.

Yet, around the world, the COVID-19 crisis has claimed many lives right where our elders were supposed to be safest, in nursing homes. Seniors considering moving to a nursing home are suddenly faced with the difficult choice of either exposing themselves to the unknowns of a pandemic or staying at home despite the challenges. Even worse, as the government recommends “stay at home” policies, trusted caretakers coming in from outside become an additional stress factor rather than a relief.

How can we age safely, spend time in a meaningful way, and remain as healthy as possible?

As architects, our responsibility is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our communities. We achieve this by thinking creatively about the spaces where people live. This includes seniors care facilities, which require careful design to achieve a welcoming yet safe environment

The answer to the question above is to design and renovate more residential environments that take into consideration aging-in-place and the physical and mental health needs of seniors.

While we cannot predict future pandemics, we have to assume that there may be others ahead. Staying in a private residence seems the safest option, although the experience can be isolating. 

To prevent a sense of isolation, homes will need to incorporate more technology allowing us to communicate better with our beloved ones. This means good sound systems, bigger screens for video calls, but also domotics and digital assistants.

The biggest challenges faced by aging populations remain accessibility and mobility. A seniors-friendly home should allow seniors to take care of themselves easily, whether it is for eating healthily or washing. Bathrooms should have wide showers with adjustable showerheads. Kitchens should feature electric stoves and storage that is easy to reach. The addition of countertops and places where people can lean throughout the house can aid movement and limit the use of railings that can be expensive and ugly. Open spaces are recommended as they can accommodate future wheelchair users or simply facilitate communication in case of a fall. 

Aging-friendly homes should also allow for the display of personal memories and “narration-of-self”. Narration-of-self is intended as the possibility to personalize a space by leaving your creations on display. This idea is inspired by the “Reggio Emilia Approach”, a popular global educational preschool philosophy. This narration process can still be applied when designing for elders, providing them with plenty of areas where they can hang photos and paintings, and with shelves where they can collect the results of their hobbies. Such spaces typically have muted tones, simple and flexible designs, and are never overwhelming or overly programmed. 

However, this doesn’t mean we should provide our elders with only neutral spaces: The perfect environment promoting narration-of-self should actually be both visually interesting and also stimulating through the use of materials that stimulate our senses. The sounds produced by different materials and their tactile qualities are powerful tools for keeping our brains active at any age. Well-designed spaces can trigger memories while promoting many new ideas. Good architecture can support mental sharpness through the design of spaces that are psychologically engaging. 

Homes should also feature iconic elements that promote wayfinding which become fundamental for people fighting with dementia. These elements also encourage movement! When designing for an older population, whether in a private or public setting, we should still provide people with opportunities to improve their cardio-fitness while meeting ADA guidelines.  In fact, promoting stair use is a common strategy of healthy design programs like the WELL Standard. A completely accessible environment would prevent seniors from exercising serendipitously. My Italian background confirms this: Italy is the second oldest country by age in the world and has very few old homes or cities that meet American disability guidelines. 

A little bit of movement, a healthy diet, and environments that stimulate our senses, can go a long way. Our lifestyle choices can help us combat bad genes and even increase the chances that our bodies will fight off disease.

In the end, aging is inevitable. While architecture cannot substitute for the special medical attention that some seniors receive in nursing homes and hospitals, thoughtfully designed architecture can certainly improve the last, best years of our lives and truly make us feel safe at home.


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