Design Solutions for Age Changes

As an Environmental Gerontologist Lori will help you consider potential age changes and plan relevant design modifications that will mitigate their effects. The changes are different in each person.

As we get older, we have less strength, balance, and endurance . Our centre of balance shifts and moves forward. We don’t lift our feet as high when walking – we tend to shuffle. Our reaction times and reflexes are slower. A blast of unexpected hot water in the sink can leave a nasty burn. The movement involved in a quick reaction could throw us off balance

Design solution:

  • Non-slip flooring is vital.
  • Be sure that all thresholds are flush with the primary flooring.
  • Along long corridors and in lobbies, install appropriate seating so that people can sit and rest if necessary.
  • Put comfortable backs on all benches and put arms on all chairs and benches, so that it’s easier for people to stand up.
  • Use lever taps on all taps in bathrooms and coffee areas.
  • Install grab bars by the toilet and in the bathtub.
  • Put non-slip surface on the bottom of the bathtub.
  • Install a seat in the tub or shower if possible.
  • Pressure balance all fixtures to guard against burns and scalds.
  • Angle the vanity mirrors so that people in wheelchairs can see themselves.
  • Build a counter around the sink so that residents can place their toiletries there.
  • Have all doors, but especially to bedrooms and bathrooms, open out rather than into the room so that if someone falls in front of the door, support staff can still open the door and get in.

The eye lens thickens and yellows as we age, letting in less than one-third the amount of light it did at the age of 20. Our visual acuity and depth perception also change and we’re more susceptible to glare. When we can’t see as well, it’s easier to misjudge distances, trip over and bump into things and lose our balance. Reading and even recognizing people’s faces can be very difficult.

Design solution:

  • Increase light levels three to five times in all areas.
  • Be sure that light levels are consistent, eliminating shadows and dramatic differences in lighting between rooms and areas.
  • Provide plenty of task lighting for reading, playing card games, knitting or crocheting and other activities.
  • Eliminate glare by offsetting doors and windows and reducing the number of shiny surfaces such as polished floors.
  • Cover all light bulbs to reduce glare.
  • Use halogen lights which most resemble natural white light.
  • Use contrasting strips on the edges of stairway steps. Use contrasting colours and large simple typefaces in all signage.
  • Be sure directional signage (at elevators, in hallways and corridors, lobbies) is easy to read and comprehend.
  • Use large numbers in contrasting colours on residents bedroom doors. If possible, create space on the doors for residents’ memorabilia. It can be easier for them to recognize their rooms this way and it can personalize the building.
  • Because the eye lens yellows, pale pastel colours wash out, blue and green can be easily confused and dark grey, black and brown appear muddy. Avoid these colours. Consider selecting colours when looking through a yellow-brown acetate so that you can see colours the way your residents perceive them.

Our ability to hear gradually decreases. People first have trouble hearing high-pitched sounds (e.g. consonant sounds in speech, birds singing, bells ringing), but generally retain good hearing for low-pitched sounds (e.g. footsteps, traffic noise, vowels in speech). When you can’t hear the consonant sounds such as “s”, “v”, “z”, “sh”, “f” and “th”, speech sounds mumbled. “Th” is the faintest sound in the English language and is only just audible at about three feet. Older people often say, “I can hear you, but you’re mumbling.” Fortunately, these sounds are fairly easy to “read” on the lips.

Design solution:

  • Eliminate background noise such as Muzak and HVAC systems.
  • Don’t leave the TV or radio on all day and night if no one is listening.
  • Use soft materials in accessories, furniture and furnishings, as it helps absorb sound and eliminate echoes.
  • Put doors between the various areas and use them.
  • Be sure that the volume on telephones and other equipment is adjustable (ringers and voice levels).
  • Increase levels throughout the building to help those who are hard of hearing read people’s body language, facial expressions and lips.

We’re less flexible and reaching up or bending down can be uncomfortable, painful or simply cause vertigo. Either could end in a fall.

Design solution:

  • Put shelves and storage units at accessible levels so that people don’t have to reach too far up or down.
  • Environmental features, such as slippery floors, dark hallways, and inaccessible light switches play a major role in 33 to 50% of falls.
  • Put all electrical outlets 24 inches from the floor.

Many of these design changes are relatively simple and inexpensive and will benefit people of all ages and abilities.
Environmental Gerontology; it is important to consider both the social and physical environment as it relates to aging as they present major resources or constraints for quality of life.