Open seating area for interaction and community connection.
Fred donham, Photographer Link

Open seating area for interaction and community connection.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the country's elderly population will grow by more than double to 80 million between now and the year 2050. That means roughly one out of five adults in the United States will be over the age of 65. One of the biggest challenges in the next 30 years will be how to meet the demand for quality living environments for the burgeoning population of older adults. This will require modifications to much of the existing housing stock, as well as the need to make changes in new construction today that will accommodate older residents' needs in the future. But aging in place is not just about the home. The aging of the population will affect every interior environment-private, commercial, and public-especially in our healthcare arena.

Because of evolving healthcare models, shortened recovery times and hospital stays have increased the need for outpatient and in-home care and for accommodations for live-in caretakers and caregivers. In the past, this has meant providing an additional bedroom or sleeping area for a temporary caregiver. However, going forward, that solution may not be enough.

Studies show boomers want to age in place-not in the hospital-and they are putting necessary technologies into their homes now that are going to help them do so. Thousands of products already in development will make older Americans' activities simpler and safer, helping them to stay involved in their communities while maintaining their lifestyle.

Elder-friendly homes will likely incorporate robotics and mechanical helpers that move around the home like our remote vacuum cleaners do today. They'll operate in combination with home automation-the wired sensory framework of the home itself. A house will “know” whether its occupants are at home or out, for example.

Instead of patients checking out of the hospital, caregivers and nurses will begin to check in at the home seniors reside in-just like the old fashioned doctor's call to the house. And when the doctor or nurse isn't visiting, health-monitoring technologies will keep tabs on the patient's medication regimen and well-being. Think of it: As one sleeps, a sensor-laden bed pad will check for irregularities in a patient's vital signs. An accompanying electronics box stores monthly data and brings abnormalities to the attention of the patient and the doctor digitally. In the morning, a patient's smartphone-like pill dispenser will remind them to take medicine and at the appropriate time alert the doctor to renew prescriptions. Refrigerators will even let homeowners know that the milk is going to expire in three days and offer breakfast suggestions to maintain healthy cholesterol. Luckily, interior designers can help with the specification and integration of all of these new gadgets.

Restaurant design showing views and amenity focus.
Restaurant design showing views and amenity focus.

Community spaces will need to adapt, too. Machines at the gym will recommend workouts based on physical needs and limitations. In the supermarket, shelves will rotate so patrons don't have to reach dangerously high or bend uncomfortably low. Much of this will be made possible by a personalized radio frequency identification chip that stores basic driving, financial, and health information on an identification card. We will see other sectors responding in similar ways. Here are a few examples.

  • In the hospitality industry: Restaurants, hotels, and motels will need to be accessible and employ necessary technologies. While overall demographic characteristics of the aging population are impressive, the variability among subgroups within the older age cohorts are the most important factors in predicting hospitality needs, design features, and opportunities. In particular, demographic variability among the elderly with regard to health status, income, and family structure is critical to various future hospitality interior design scenarios.

    Additionally, the aging population will progressively be better educated and more experienced consumers of hospitality services and products. Most are comfortable scheduling their travel plans online and booking hotels without a travel agent. Since many have the time and means to travel well, they also look for luxury amenities while on holiday. It is suggested that the psychological construct of “personal control” will be increasingly important to developers and designers as a criterion in judging the acceptability of hospitality industry products intended for this more sophisticated, aging clientele of the future.

  • In the workplace: Offices, retail stores, and other work spaces will need to provide adequate lighting, seating, technology, task areas, and quiet places for older workers. Anticipate career stages and the concept of retirement to be in transition as rising life expectancies will place life roles into a new context. Eventually, more employers will see the advantages to hiring older workers, as have the 50 companies and organizations recognized by AARP. Older workers are mature, reliable, adaptable, experienced, loyal, and have a desire to work.

    Redesigning work and the workplace to accommodate the older worker is crucial. Ergonomics and its scientific approach to identifying the mismatches between the job demands and worker capabilities is an effective way to address the concerns of the aging workforce. Workplace modifications, task redesigns, and adjustable lighting will all be necessary in the future. The stakes are high, for employers as well as employees. Ultimately, such improvements could be the only way of securing the supply of labor. The culture and values of the older workers are significant assets for the companies that choose to attract and retain them. These values include commitment and loyalty to the employer, fewer sick days, reduced injuries, and enhanced length of service.

  • In the retail environment: Stores will need to be accessible and accommodate individuals with multiple needs. The “silver shoppers” of a graying population offer an enormous opportunity for marketers, retailers, designers, and consumer researchers alike. The status and economic situation of today's mature market explains the concrete, functional, and social needs and wants of this consumer group in a retail environment. Since retailers in the current economy have to deliver value to the consumer, they truly have to focus on consumers' desires in the marketplace.

    Implementing design for aging features in the layout of retail stores would enable older consumers to function optimally and comfortably in these environments. Creating a successful adaptive retail store environment requires the application of design features that formulate answers to consumers' needs. Research shows that for older consumers, it is important to create efficient and user-friendly shopping environments with special attention to the concrete physical and spatial aspects of the shop.

  • Committing to multihousing/multiuse: There is a growing demand for livable communities and urban complexes with easy access to healthcare, entertainment, shopping, and the like is required. Unless America makes a commitment to livable communities, baby boomers and other persons of a range of ages and with a variety of abilities will find it difficult to age successfully and remain engaged with their communities. The shortage of affordable and well-designed housing, mobility options, and opportunities for community engagement make it difficult for persons to maintain independence and a high quality of life. On the other hand, those communities that design for livability empower their residents to remain independent and engaged, and offer a better quality of life.

Take-away library at mercy san juan's infusion unit.
Take-away library at Mercy San Juan's infusion unit.

Residents of homes that are well-designed for their needs, as well as residents who live in communities with a range of well-designed features and services, are much more likely to be socially involved and active in their communities. But there are frequently barriers to developing new housing options or enjoying the full use of existing housing. Solving those problems will require the involvement of individuals, families, interior designers, contractors, the private sector, and government.

Community engagement, which encompasses community attachment, neighboring and informal help, organizational memberships, volunteering, charitable giving, and involvement in community affairs-including local political participation-is a key feature of the livable community. The advantage of this view is that it recognizes that successful aging is more than simply a matter of health or disability. Rather, it goes further to recognize outcomes for people; successful aging comprises what people actually do and their satisfaction with life. From this perspective, active community engagement is a critical component of successful aging.

There are many ways to promote livability. For instance, homes that are affordable enable individuals to remain in the communities to which they have long-term attachments. At the same time, good home design, founded on ease of use and accessibility, enhances quality of life by enabling individuals to enjoy the full use of their residence as they age. Community features and services play their own prominent role. In addition to these home and community features, transportation and mobility options have a profound impact on the lifestyles of older Americans. Of course, most people in the United States drive to get where they want to go. For those individuals who do not drive, whether by choice or necessity, options like walking or public transportation can contribute to personal independence and quality of life.

One of the most important aspects of a livable community is the high level of engagement of its residents, ranging from participation in social activities and relationships, to volunteering, to civic participation in community planning and the political process. We highlight community engagement as a distinct characteristic of the livable community because it furthers our understanding of successful aging outcomes for people. Independence for older persons does not mean that they live in isolation but, rather, that they are able to function and remain active in their setting of choice and to continue to enjoy their desired level of support from and interaction with other people. In this context, homes, neighborhoods, and mobility options all play a key role in how residents invest themselves in the community around them. The community can promote and benefit from a high level of participation of its residents.

Transportation that connects individuals to the goods, services, and social opportunities of the community contributes to successful aging. It connects the home with community activities and social opportunities. People who do not have transportation options to meet their individual needs cannot easily contribute to their communities as volunteers or advocates, and they are less satisfied with their communities and their lives. A livable community provides a transportation system with a range of services operated to support the involvement of all its residents.

Interior designers are uniquely qualified to create supportive, livable environments for older persons that are functional, healthy, and safe-especially in the healthcare and medical home arenas. Just as the baby boomers have affected every aspect of daily life for the last half century, as they enter their golden years, their needs and desire to redefine “the second half of life” can be expected to make design for aging more important in the coming decades. And that holds true not only for designers and their designs, but also for the manufacturers of the products they specify for a variety of healthcare environments. HCD

Kerrie Kelly, ASID, is an interior designer, educator, and author of

Home Décor: A Sunset Design Guide. She is the Chair of the ASID Design for Aging Council, creates multimedia interior design education products, and is the owner of Kerrie Kelly Design Lab in Northern California. For more information, visit Healthcare Design 2011 February;11(2):18-22

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