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Designing for an aging population — new ideas for older folks

Shannon Moneo
Designing for an aging population — new ideas for older folks

For the first time, Statistics Canada’s 2016 census reported that people aged 65 and over outnumbered those aged 14 and under.

There were 5.9 million Canadian seniors versus 5.8 million youngsters. By 2031, seniors will make up almost one quarter of the country’s population compared to 17 per cent today.

Already, construction of assisted living, residential care or long-term care homes has become a priority for companies such as Le Groupe Maurice and Revera Inc.

When Susan Drew Johnson brings her “Designing for an Aging Population” presentation to Buildex Vancouver on Feb. 14 one of her goals will be to address the confusion that exists among designers when their project is a seniors’ facility.

“It’s about finding the right product to fit the service,” says Johnson, a senior living project manager with Altro, an international company that specializes in interior flooring and wall finishes.

“Seniors’ living is a very misunderstood segment,” she says. In addition to a slate of physical changes, the mental and memory challenges that come with disorders like dementia add a complex layer in how seniors perceive the world.

In charge of Altro’s Western Canada operations since 2012, Johnson has become very passionate about designing for seniors. In 2014, the U.K.-headquartered company, with factories in England and Germany, decided to get serious about seniors’ facilities.

“We conducted research to produce a map to our product lines,” Johnson says. A survey of seniors’ facility owners, operators, designers and architects was done to guide clients towards the most suitable products. “We got a lot of feedback. It went beyond mapping.”

One factor was important when it came to design.

“You need to walk in the shoes of a 70 or 80-year-old and perceive their world,” Johnson says.

In that respect, the significance of floors and walls are two areas that may not get the attention that’s warranted.

As Johnson explains it, three distinct populations, with distinct needs, inhabit seniors’ facilities, which she characterizes as a combination of hospital, hotel and home.

First are support staff who are the people working in the kitchen and laundry areas, they usually walk quickly, sometimes on floors coated with grease, food waste or water. Their footwear would be different from residents.

Second are the residents who either shuffle, walk heel-to-toe, or use walkers or wheelchairs. Flooring has to prevent slips or falls, yet not be too aggressive, Johnson says.

Third are the care providers and visitors/family who share the same space with residents. They usually move well, walking heel-to-toe.

Added to the ambulatory differences is that when people age, their senses diminish, which means their environment becomes more difficult to understand and navigate. Seniors lose peripheral vision, have colour and night vision changes, and glare and blurred vision become problems. They also don’t like change.

“They need brighter, more saturated colours,” Johnson says.

“Pastels or all one colour don’t work. As well, similar colours like green and blue, next to each other, are problematic.”

When walls and floors are in the same colour family, they blend into one another, making it hard for seniors to see the beginning and end of each surface. Contrasting colours such as light blue and deep red work well. In the bathroom, if the walls, floor and fixtures are all white, there will be problems. The floor and toilet colours should contrast.

“A bad design would be light floors and light walls,” Johnson says.

But it’s also a fine line. Changes in hue, contrast and pattern can be perceived as changes in floor level.

Simple considerations, such as using matte surfaces, avoiding sparkles or speckling and having no patterns on flooring are all senior-friendly.

When the Altro started the process to determine which of its floor and wall products were best suited to everywhere from entrances and residents’ rooms to wet areas and commercial kitchens, Altro made use of the Facility Guidelines Institute’s 2014 Guidelines. The U.S.-based FGI develops resources to plan, design, and build hospitals, outpatient, residential health care and support facilities. In Canada, the CSA Z8000 Canadian

Health Care Facilities is a similar, but limited, document, which focusses on hospitals, medical offices and health care facilities.
Europe, meanwhile, has done a better job understanding and building for seniors’ needs.

“They’re decades ahead of us,” Johnson says.

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