How do we design and build homes to improve the quality of life of elderly people?

elderly image
elderly image

The UK population isn’t only growing, it’s getting older too. It’s expected that by 2039, there will be 74 million people in the UK, with 18 per cent aged 65 and over, and 2.4 per cent aged 85 and over.

Now, the government has announced plans to invest £76 million annually for the next three years into housing for the elderly or those suffering from disabilities. The aim of the new developments is to help older people live more independently for longer.

Moving away from the traditional care home, ministers said the new developments will be luxurious – some with spas, hairdressers and even bistros. The plans include the use of video monitoring and sensors to track those who may be more vulnerable, as well as dementia-friendly design, communal rooms and sensory gardens.

We urgently need more housing in the UK – and given that the population is aging, it makes sense to design and build homes that can improve the quality of life for older people. But what else should we consider when designing and building new homes for the elderly?

Improving the health and wellbeing of older people through good design and build

Thinking about building comfort, we explore different ways to improve the comfort, wellbeing and health of older people.

1: Acoustic comfort

More than two-thirds of older people have hearing loss. Not only can this lead to social isolation, it can increase the risk of depression and dementia. Background noise can make it hard for older people with hearing loss to feel comfortable, as well as interact and engage with others around them.

There are studies that show hearing is the sense that has the most significant impact on the quality of life for people with dementia. Exposure to noises can lead to agitation, as well as cause problems with other senses such as sight and sensitivity to light. Because hearing is linked with balance, noise can also increase the risk of falling.

It’s therefore vital to get acoustic comfort right when designing and building homes for elderly people. Quiet areas can be created by using materials to absorb noises, as well as insulating surfaces. Architects, designers and builders also need to make sure sounds that people do want to hear – for example, the TV, radio or conversations – can be easily transmitted with minimal echo or background noise.

2: Thermal comfort

Extreme temperatures can have severe health consequences for elderly people. Those who are 65 and older are more at risk of flu, pneumonia, hypothermia, strokes and heart attacks if the temperature drops below 8°C. During winter, we see more deaths than in the summer – particularly in the elderly, with over one-third of excess winter deaths caused by respiratory diseases.

And during the summer and heatwaves, they may suffer from heat exhaustion, heatstroke, dehydration and overheating – which can make any heart and breathing problems worse.

Making sure homes are properly insulated, with no draughts and energy efficient glazing can help to keep a consistent temperature. Modern, energy efficient heating systems and a properly working boiler are important too.

For hotter conditions, it’s important that windows can open for natural ventilation when it’s slightly cooler outside or there’s a breeze. But if it’s very hot outside, it’s more beneficial to keep windows closed, as well as curtains to help keep rooms cool. Air conditioning or electric fans may also be required to reduce the temperature too, but if homes are built with a fabric first approach, this should minimise the need for such items.

3: Indoor air comfort

Environments that aren’t ventilated properly can become humid, which is perfect for some biological agents such as mildew and mites but not ideal for people – especially those who have allergies or respiratory problems. Poor ventilation and dampness can also increase the risk of mould, which can cause breathing problems and trigger asthma attacks. And once again, elderly people and those with respiratory problems or weakened immune systems are among those most at risk.

Natural and mechanical ventilation can improve the quality of the air indoors. It’s important architects and builders pay attention to airflow in homes, especially as some studies suggest that over a third of homes don’t have vents that are open or working.

4: Visual comfort

To achieve visual comfort, we must consider a number of factors. To start with, we need to make sure the type and quality of light is sufficient. Getting the right level of light can help elderly people reduce the risk of falls and accidents, as well as carry out their day-to-day tasks safely and effectively. Eyesight tends to diminish as we get older, especially for those who have conditions such as cataracts or glaucoma.

Some studies show the average 60-year-old needs three times more light than an average 20-year-old to be able to see clearly. But as well as artificial lighting, we also need to consider how to maximise natural light too. Not only can an even distribution of natural light help people to see what they’re doing, it can also help to regulate their body clock and improve their mental health and feelings of well-being.

Making sure elderly people have views of nature around them can have a number of benefits and may be especially important for those who are unable to get outside. Interacting with nature – even if it’s simply by looking through a window – can help elderly people and those with dementia to connect with others, feel more confident, have a sense of belonging and control, and boost their mood.

While it’s certainly true that we need more housing – especially for older people – we hope the government’s plans to move away from traditional care homes to build more luxurious developments doesn’t overlook the need to design and build for comfort, health and wellbeing.