Design Tools for 'Super Seniors'

Ageing is a natural yet complicated process that involves a combination of a series of physical, social and psychological changes. Biologically, as the brain ages, the senses become less efficient. Sensory changes can influence the way we see, hear, taste, smell and respond to touch and pain. This in turn affects how we experience the world and react to things. A significant sensory change can rob us of many simple pleasures and complicate the tasks of daily living. It may mean reduced mobility, increase dependence on others, inaccurate perception of the environment, reduced ability to communicate and socialize and loss of self-esteem. The psychological repercussions of such changes in the body cause ‘super seniors’ – our term for the today’s rapidly-growing ageing population – to re-identify themselves among their family and society. Under such new circumstances, there are certain needs for their immediate surroundings and their living environment. In the following sections, we highlight major aspects of the spatial needs of super seniors and indicate their potential for responsive architectural design.

Sensory Tools

 

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Colour

The yellowing of the lens in adulthood has the direct effect of reducing the older adult’s ability to discriminate colours at the green-blue-violet end of the colour spectrum. As the eye ages, it requires greater intensities of colour for the visual system to perceive stimuli.

 Use colour contrast

  • Use colour coding

 

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View

Poor colour discrimination interacts with poor contrast-sensitivity to make boundary detection a challenge. Also decreased acuity referring to a person’s ability to resolve details means that the elderly need high contrast stimuli and larger-sized objects.

  • Publish larger-print text
  • Design larger-size objects

 

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Light

Older people experience lower light levels because of decreased illumination within the eye. Appropriate increases in illumination require that the light provided be yellowish rather than ­­bluish, because blue light is scattered more by the lens, which absorbs yellow light.

Furthermore, it is necessary to consider the environmental context when adjusting lighting conditions. Higher levels of illumination are particularly important in halls, staircases, entrances and landings.

Difficulties in dark adaptation can heighten the older adult’s vulnerability to falls and these are more likely to occur when there are difficult steps to negotiate in dimly lit settings.

  • Control glare
  • Increase illumination

 

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Touch & Feel

Touch sensitivity and the ability to detect pain decreases with age, while pain thresholds increase with age. Older adults are less likely to perceive internal body pain or their own rising/decreasing temperature.

  • Decrease / increase temperature setting as appropriate
  • Provide more opportunities for touch

 

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Taste & Smell

The sense of smell diminishes as one age. It affects safety as it lowers sensibility to warning odours – gas, smoke or 'off' food.

  • Make eating social
  • Develop smell-enhancing strategies

 

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Hearing

Approximately 30-50% of all older people suffer from significant hearing loss that affects their communication and relationships with others. They may not hear sounds that shape our daily lives, such as doorbells, telephones, alarm clocks.

  • Reduce background noise

 

Social Tools

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Family & Friends

A sense of security and connection to family and friends enables the elderly to live with a peace of mind. Having a stable environment and healthy relationships reduces the elderly’s mental burden and keeps their emotional and cognitive abilities going.

  • Nurture a sense of intimacy and connectedness

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Hobbies

Elderly people who seek potential hobbies are motivated by the need for passions. They seek experiences more than possessions. They desire a greater meaning in life that goes beyond them.

  • Encourage a sense of freedom and inspiration

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Education

Elderly people who seek ongoing educational opportunities are motivated by the need to maintain their critical faculties and make new achievements. Their self-esteem depends in large part on their perceptions of what they can do and how well they can do it.

  • Encourage a sense of aspiration and motivation

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Employment

In certain jobs, elder workers play an important role, especially in the fields that require years of experience. Older workers can make use of their rich experience and knowledge to the advantage of their employer as well as their community.

  • Encourage a sense of confidence and purpose

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Urban activities

As we age, staying active is very important. The activity theory of ageing proposes that higher levels of participation in social and leisure activities are essential to the well-being of older adults. Urban activities help elderly to achieve engagement to their community, creating and maintenance of close relationships and healthy ageing.

  • Maintain a sense of integration with the environment

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Social activities

Both men and women benefit from social activity at older ages. Those who continue to interact with others tend to be healthier, both physically and mentally, than those who become socially isolated. Interactions with friends and family members can provide the emotional and practical support that enables older persons to remain in the community and reduce the likelihood that they will need formal health care services.

  • Maintain links with loved ones

Spatial Tools

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Layout

Elderly living spaces shall be compact as possible as by age people get less movable in order to increase ease of access and living. Compact, well-thought and open-plan design is necessary. Layouts should be flexible to suit a variety of requirements. It is important to create an appropriate amount of privacy, while creating an open plan layout.

  • Develop compact and open-plan designs
  • Allow for flexibility and customization

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Furnishing

Avoid using heavy furniture. Furniture should be light and easily movable. Removing sharp edges is important in order to reduce injuries. Using natural colours will create a calm and cheerful environment.

  • Install lightweight and movable furniture
  • Choose furniture with soft edges and natural colours

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Ergonomics

Elderly people have a limited range of ergonomic movements, such as reaching high or low. For this reason, countertops, kitchen drawers, wardrobes and cabinets should accommodate this limited movement condition. For example, handles for opening doors, or for pull and push functions shall be selected sensibly to allow adequate grabbing for required actions.

  • Limit the need for pushing and pulling
  • Limit the need for reaching, stooping and lifting

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Wayfinding

As elderly person’s senses get less sensitive due to ageing, this will cause way finding might become harder. Simple circulation design is a necessity. Central circulation voids and halls are important to give right guidance or to show overall circulation strategy.

  • Design central circulation voids that prioritise visibility

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Communal Space

The elderly should not feel detached from urban life. It is necessary to create communal spaces where a different age group of the community can get together. In order to achieve this, communal spaces shall be located strategically to make the elderly housing complexes to integrate to the urban fabric.

  • Create communal spaces that bridge the urban fabric and elderly housing

UNStudio Team: Ergin Birinci, Sander Versluis, Tina Kortmann, Yan Ma