Design for Our Future
The number of Americans ages 65 and older has grown by 10% over the past 40 years, and will reach 80 million in 2040. And the group most often needing help with activities of daily living, adults ages 85 and older, will nearly double from 2000 and 2040.
As we contemplate Design for Aging to support our older population, it’s essential to consider Universal Design, a concept introduced over 70 years ago and reinforced by the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Universal Design is defined as the design of products and environments usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without need for adaptation or specialized design. A space that incorporates universal design principles intends to benefit the needs of everyone, from senior citizens to young children.
The design of any public building - hospital, assisted living facility, bank or coffee shop starts at the curb and incorporates the 7 Principals of Universal Design to embrace the perspective and needs of every user. Specific to this conversation, we want to cover Universal Design concepts related to ambulatory mobility, vision, and cognitive issues holistically throughout the design process.
While working with Anshen & Allen on the layout of the Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Replacement Campus as a Kaiser interior designer, our team created a design for the entire campus starting from the bus stop. If patients young and old could not get from the bus stop to their correct department – we were failing them. With a 500,000 square foot medical office building and 500,000 square foot hospital to enter, it was vital to facilitate the access we were mission-bound to provide. We began by referencing the ADA Standards to guide our programming, space planning and aesthetic. Simple features we included are below:
Sometimes as designers we get caught up in the aesthetic and forget about the function. While a designer at Sutter Health, I worked on the Munnerlyn Eye Institute which predominantly caters to older patients. The evacuation maps suddenly grew from 11x17 emergency exit maps to nearly 24x30 to accommodate a 5/8” minimum font height ADA requirement. I didn’t like it. The evac maps became the size of artwork and required wall space not available at the exits. It took me a minute to understand that in a true emergency, people who are already visually impaired would never be able to read the evac map at the smaller size. I had to shift my perspective as a designer and remember a guiding ethic, if the design doesn’t function for the intended user then it has failed. Other visual considerations are as follows:
We can design in all the correct dimensions and heights required, but if the environment fails to stimulate and create interest, the design becomes institutional. I have been fortunate to work for two healthcare systems that strongly believe in cognitive stimulation, particularly as it applies to a human centered experience in their buildings. Cognition applies to everyone, but as we age our residential and socialization spaces need to help keep everyone engaged and active. To avoid institutionalizing design, think in color and depth. Artwork that uses patterns and texture to stimulate the eye is a good starting point. Further curating artwork within the facility to include various subject matters and mediums like murals, sculptures, and paintings). Historical pictures of the area also appeal to a wide range of ages. But cognitive design extends beyond art to encompass all of our senses. Consider the following ideas.
Designing for the elderly requires more than accommodation. It takes an ethos rooted in what they ultimately need: independence, autonomy, and stimulation. Just like everyone else. When we carefully consider these fundamental human needs throughout the entire process, designers can express empathy for the elderly, yes, and also a recognition that their lives and needs are universal. Because ultimately this means designing for us all.