Rethinking Retirement – Designing for the Third Age

By Marc Nicholas

Our ability to live longer than in any other time in history is fuelling a re-think in the design and construction of architecture for aging.

Those aged over 55, a period now known as the Third Age, have higher expectations than previous generations in terms of innovative design and features in senior living options.

Latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the over 65s and over 85s are the two demographics which are significantly growing.

The millennium seniors are shaking off ageism shackles and will become increasingly vocal in the next 20 years about their place in society. They are already eager to embrace technology as well as new learning and travel experiences. They will also be more insistent on ageing in place and maintaining independence as long as possible.

Connectivity will be the cornerstone of future senior living options including renovated family homes, multi-generational living arrangements and purpose built units within seniors’ complexes.  We are part of society from the day we are born, why should it be any different as we age.

Federal Government 2013 reforms known as Living Longer, Living Better have allowed aged care operators more flexibility to charge different rates for accommodation, creating a commercial incentive to lift standards.

These changes have contributed to a new chapter in Australian seniors living that offers more choice of accommodation and services to facilitate ageing in place.

In turn it has created strong demand for clever, stylish and responsive architecture aimed at delivering a sense of security, ease of mobility and inclusion.

Innovators in building and design are focusing on new durable and low-maintenance materials, features that connect rather than isolate and new configurations of senior living arrangements to challenge the notion that ‘one size fits all’.

The Nana Project, a 2015 study financed through the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship, sought to explore how architects can design better environments for older people.

Author Guy Luscombe, a Sydney architect and researcher, based his report on interviews with people in Europe and Scandinavia living in mainly multi-generational housing and seniors housing co-operatives that are self-organised and self controlled.

Residents identified connectivity and a sense of belonging as among the important contributors towards their objectives of happiness, normality and equality opportunity.  Other high-priority elements included:

  • Large windows to allow in natural light to brighten the interior and to bring in the vitality of the outside world.
  • Space – scaled down building dimensions but internal spaces large enough not to inhibit movement for people with disabilities. Designers also need to keep in mind ‘efficient circulation’ principles so getting to places within a community should not involve long distances.
  • Outdoor space – most popular were private areas (balconies) and more communal spaces like gardens and places to gather.
  • Freedom of choice – a recurring theme in every facet of design from concept to lighting and furniture.

In one of seven recommendations Luscombe says:

‘Designing for the aged should move away from a compliance driven approach to design to a more needs-based approach embracing inclusiveness and equal opportunity. Architects, and their clients, should be challenging stereotypes and seeking better more uplifting outcomes from our design.’

This attitude is gradually being reflected in newer developments.

Progressive providers throughout Australia are providing well beyond basic ‘roof over one’s head’ amenities.

These extend to features like theatrettes and resort-style pools for exercise, therapy and social gatherings. A NSW provider, IRT, recently developed a community where ageing people with intellectual disability and their primary carers can age in place together. Known as Kemira, and sited in Wollongong south of Sydney, it took out an award in the community contribution section in the Australian Business Awards 2016 for social innovation.

It features 12 villas, community centre and respite centre and was co designed with disability service providers. There are many more similar examples of caring and responsive design cropping up throughout Australia that heralds both a challenging and exciting era for seniors’ living.

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