Special restorative design considerations for the elderly

An older man and younger man playing chess outside in front of a building
Providing social engagement and mental stimulation for older people is just as important as attending to mobility concerns. Image: Ap X, Unsplash

Attending to the health and wellbeing of our older people is not only an ethical concern, but a practical one as well, with much of the world’s populations aging as societies advance into well-developed maturity. Advances in medicine and public health mean that people are now living longer than ever before. In the UK, for instance, it is expected that 1 in 5 people will be over 65 by the year 2030. In Japan almost 1 in 3 of the population are already over age 65.

Older people face a special set of challenges which calls for a responsive and human-centered urban design and architecture. Thus far, most research focuses on the impact of design choices on mobility in the elderly; much less attention has been paid to design for psychological and physiological needs. Consider that older adults must process complex and emotionally daunting decisions over financial planning, healthcare, and special living arrangements in their advanced years. Consider also that a lifetime of experience and familiarity with one’s environment can lead to boredom and disengagement if there is a lack of adequate, refreshing stimuli. We’ve heard the adage “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” and this applies just as much with the mind; without a healthy and active mindset, self-care becomes that much harder. With daily cognitive challenges like these, we argue that addressing mood of place – and the experience of a city in older age – is just as important as addressing mobility.

Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART) provides an important framework for identifying areas of opportunity for environmental enhancement for older people, but heavier emphasis should be directed to creating spaces compatible with this population. What does compatibility mean in this context?

ART posits that the natural environment encourages indirect, gentle attention that require minimal mental effort, which in turn allows us to recover from mental fatigue and restore our processing capacities. After a day (or days!) spent on tasks requiring intense, directed focus and active attention, the soft babble of a fountain or dappled light patterns on a foot path provide refreshing cognitive breaks.

Green spaces and blue spaces (water-rich areas) no doubt offer restorative opportunities to the elderly. However, to create truly restorative environments for this population, we must look through the lens of compatibility. How far away are these spaces from residences—how easy are they to reach? How many are available? What is the quality or upkeep condition of these spaces? Are there outdoor gyms, aka “multi-generational playgrounds”?

Urban environments and the home context itself are also areas of engagement. Are the neighborhood streets visually intriguing? Are the home environment and immediate surroundings aesthetically pleasing or welcoming? Are there spaces where one can perform leisurely but gently challenging activities that foster a sense of accomplishment and empowerment?

Perhaps most important in terms of compatibility is the degree of social connection made available in an elderly person’s environment. Social isolation is detrimental to mental well-being and has been significantly associated with increased mortality in older people. The aforementioned multi-generational gym is one strategy to introduce inter-generational bonding and interaction. Gardening is another flexible activity that can be social or solitary.

These are some of the ideas set out—and scientifically evidenced—in our chapter, Restorative environments and subjective wellbeing and mobility outcomes in older people in The Palgrave Handbook of Ageing and Physical Activity Promotion. With more systematic research on stress reduction and socially-supported self-empowerment, we may even find that creating elderly-attuned environments has a positive, trickle-down effect on younger generations as well.

An older man buying groceries from and older lady at an outdoor stall
Urban markets offer older people a wide range of health opportunities including healthy food options; visual stimuli that changes seasonally; increased social connection to the local community and increased mobility. Image: Jefferson Area Board of Aging (JABA)

Jenny Roe and Farrah Dang

Farrah Dang is a graduate in the School of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia