As our population ages, designing environments that are aesthetically pleasing whilst also offering exceptional functionality is one of the key challenges in helping our older generation to enjoy longevity in happiness and comfort.
Where we live, work or socialise has huge implications on our health and wellbeing throughout our lives. Addressing practical considerations whilst making somewhere appealing to our senses isn’t easy, and as we get older we may have physical or mental health problems that impact upon our daily living, and eventually mean we require residential care. So how do you meet the challenge of designing environments for older people that give them the sanctuary and pleasure that we all seek in life?
On my travels around the UK I have visited care homes of all shapes and sizes, some incredibly smart, others very plain, a few quite run down. I’ve been to care homes steeped in history and tucked away down long driveways in the countryside, and big modern purpose-built homes in the heart of towns with schools and rows of semi-detached houses as neighbours. I’ve seen the sort of luxury environments that come with an equally impressive price-tag, and witnessed expensive ‘innovations’ that are either loved by the older people who are meant to use them or dismissed as a waste of time.
Historical properties that have been turned into care homes can offer a wow factor that makes you feel very grand, but design-wise they don’t always provide the most practical accommodation. What they do teach us, however, is that the opportunity to be surrounded by an old-world feel can be very alluring, particularly in the case of people with dementia for whom older properties can offer familiarity in styles, smells and layouts, combined with endless possibilities for reminiscence, that are hugely beneficial.
More modern homes can come with all kinds of innovative facilities, including nail bars, café’s, shops, cinemas, gyms and wi-fi zones. All well intentioned of course, but I wouldn’t want such facilities to replace encouraging residents to go out into the wider community to experience social interaction, travel and new sensations. Ultimately I also wonder if some of these ‘innovations’ are more for staff and visitors than the residents. I vividly remember back in my days of singing in care homes, doing a gig in a nursing home’s cinema and the staff telling me that the residents never went down there and actually didn’t really like the room.
For me, however, there are some elements to creating a desirable environment for an older person that apply to pretty much any type of property. Top of that list would be bringing the natural world into our buildings. Mother nature has given us wonderful light, beautiful plants, birds, wildlife and even weather that can offer our senses something unique all year round. So for me sun rooms, conservatories and large windows are essential when designing buildings for older people, and of course easy access to outdoor spaces that will provide an even more intimate experience of the natural environment and the chance for some al fresco living.
One day you can be sat in a conservatory snoozing in the warm sunshine, the next day you could be listening to the pitter patter of raindrops. You can get closer to weather you wouldn’t necessarily want to go out in either, like watching snow falling on the roof or icicles forming over the windows. Natural light also gives a wonderful feel-good factor that is priceless for wellbeing. The only caveat with regard to lighting is thinking carefully about how light reflects around a room, and how that can impact upon someone with dementia, as I wrote about here.
Of course artificial lighting will always be necessary, but for me you can make an environment cosier if you replace glaring over-head lights (that feel a bit like a hospital) with subtle side lighting that operates on a dimming system, so it can be adjusted if more or less light is required. There are also some wonderful lighting solutions that mimic daylight. I once visited a care home that had a ‘beach’ room, complete with deck chairs, sand and ‘sunshine’ lighting. Alternatively, you can use the warm and soothing effect of a fire to give a room ambience and a home-from-home feeling – in a safe and secure way of course.
Harnessing the power of the natural world can go beyond just lighting however. I’m a big believer in having plants, especially growing fruits and vegetables, indoors – many older people love gardening and by bringing the garden indoors, you can make that an all-year-round activity. Incorporating a greenhouse into a design for a care home or day centre, as part of the main building not as a standalone in the garden, would also potentially fuel activities in another area that is essential to daily living – the kitchen.
How often when you have house guests does everyone end up congregating in the kitchen? In my family it’s the way it has always been. So for me the place where food and drinks are prepared, cooked and eaten is the hub of any home. Clearly you can’t have industrial-style kitchens accessible to residents in a care home, but you can promote independent living by providing adapted kitchens that enable residents and visitors to make their own drinks or snacks.
Indeed assistive products exist for just about every facet of daily living, from eating to bathing and sleeping, but I would argue that profiling beds and assisted bathrooms are still best delivered as discretely as possible to avoid that dreaded ‘hospital’ feel. I still vividly remember how actively a deputy manager at one of dad’s care homes campaigned to persuade the management to install wet rooms, which when we finally got them proved to be a revelation, particularly for residents who were terrified of being hoisted into a bath. Proof that how buildings are designed and equipped is vital in helping with good care provision.
The environment you live in isn’t just about what you can see either. Heating is essential, but carefully regulated systems that offer gentle warmth rather than blasts of heat are in everyone’s best interests. One care home I visited even had a system for pumping fresh air throughout the property – an excellent idea from a health point of view.
Interestingly, on our own search for a home for my dad (which I wrote about here), the only environmental aspect that carried any real weight with us was location. Given dad’s love of the countryside we could never have considered moving him into a home that was in the middle of a town, which proves that like everything in life personalisation is vital.
Ultimately though, I would give the last word on designing buildings for older people to the generation that we are creating them for. They are the real experts, and with an ageing population I am sure that there would be no shortage of willing respondents.
Until next time…