How To Design for Senior Citizens – Ideas for Elder-Friendly Design

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Young and healthy people can’t imagine how difficult everyday tasks are for older people.

Youngsters and even middle-aged people take a healthily-functioning body, with all senses and organs working perfectly, for granted. When was the last time you felt grateful for your body?

However, as is the law of nature, everything must grow, and everything must grow old, including humans.

Therefore, as responsible citizens of a caring society, the onus is on us to ensure the elderly don’t feel alienated from their surroundings.

One way to ensure that is to design things of everyday use in a manner that they encounter minimal difficulty while using them.

Keeping this in mind, we’ve compiled this guide which will provide you with some ideas on how senior citizens’ lives can be made better, so let’s get started.

How To Design for Senior Citizens – Ideas for Elder-Friendly Design

Public Spaces

Though elderly people generally prefer to stay indoors, it is no excuse for not adapting public spaces for their accessibility. Here are some tips managers of public spaces can adopt.

  1. Wheelchair Accessibility

Elderly people in wheelchairs are a common sight, and elderly people struggling to mount staircases, pavements, etc. is also a common sight.

To make these areas accessible, ensure that they have smooth ramps for mounting and dismounting. For example, a pavement should have an on-ramp and off-ramp. Staircases should have ramps running parallel to them; however, if this is not possible, a separate ramp must be provided.

Ensure that the ramp is not made from a slippery surface. It should also be wide enough for the biggest wheelchair. Bear in mind that the angle shouldn’t be too steep, as not everyone might be in a motorized wheelchair, and for some senior citizens, wheeling themselves up can become a challenge.

Lastly, this measure, if implemented, would prove to be beneficial for disabled people as well.

  1. Signage

Elderly citizens often find it hard to navigate their surroundings, owing to diminishing vision and spatial sense. Therefore, it is imperative to provide them with easy-to-read signs at short intervals.

Make the background and the colors bright and contrasted to help senior citizens with dementia. This has the benefit of being easy-to-read too.

Carry this approach to everything important in the sign; however, don’t overdo it by extending it to unimportant elements, as the attention of those who have dementia shouldn’t be drawn unnecessarily.

Keep the signs as simple as possible. Do not use your discretion, use standard designs (for, say, people, animals, institutions, etc.) wherever possible and place them at a comfortable level so that wheelchair users can read them.

Lastly, do not restrict yourself to visual signage, use tactile feedback wherever possible. For example, a light directing pedestrians at a crossing to proceed can have a supporting audible message for the elderly.

  1. Infrastructure

Merely building ramps and signages isn’t enough; the entire space must be planned to suit the needs of the elderly.

For example, ensure that there is adequate public convenience. Elderly people are likely to suffer from problems relating to controlling their bowels and bladders; therefore, accessible washrooms are a must.

Moreover, ensure that there are comfortable places to sit. Elderly folk suffering from postural problems, bone problems, etc. will need someplace to sit; therefore, a comfortable bench or two is essential.

These are only two instances of such infrastructure, and it must be placed in both, external areas demarcated for general public use (public parks, squares, etc.) and internal areas run managed by organizations, such as congregation centers, private parks, etc.

  1. Lighting

All infrastructure, fixtures, and fittings work fine during the day, and you need to ensure that they work fine for the elderly at night as well.

Firstly, understand what’s going on with the elderly’s vision. As people age, they experience neurodegeneration in the retina; therefore, less light reaches the end of the eyes because the pupils decrease in size. Moreover, the lens also become thicker, making light scatter more and reducing a person’s ability to view color and detail.    

Keeping this in mind, before you decide where and how lighting is to be placed, determine the color of the lighting. It is important to account for the elderly’s circadian rhythm and place lighting, which does not set it off.

Some places adopt a cool white hue, whereas some adopt a warm orange color, and others adopt anything and everything in between. Keeping the circadian rhythm in mind, it is best to adopt a yellow-orange color for public lighting, as there is a negligible loss of visibility while the benefits to the elderly are immense.

Lastly, bear in mind the placement and coverage of lighting. Ensure that there are street lights or lights at short intervals so that no area is left uncovered by light.

Also, look for narrow areas and alleys. Lighting in these areas is absolutely crucial as the elderly, in order to avoid the noise and hustle-bustle of the streets, are likely to use these alleys.

Personal Spaces

Having covered personal spaces, we now look into how designers should structure senior citizens’ private spaces, such as homes and offices.

  1. Bedrooms

  • Bed Height

Bed height is one of the most crucial aspects of bedroom design as far as the elderly are concerned.

This is because, if the bed is too high, mounting and dismounting will be a problem. Moreover, climbing and getting down from such a height can result in serious injury.

Similarly, if the bed is too low, senior citizens may encounter problems standing up.

The appropriate height for a bed meant for the elderly is 24- to 36-inches. Ideally, the top of the bed should be level with the knees of the user. Insert some risers beneath the posts if needed.

  • Flooring

While it is a good idea to get slip-proof footwear, that in itself is not enough.

A bedroom meant for the elderly should have flooring that is not prone to slipping. Flooring made of hard stone, such as marble and ceramic, is a complete no-no.

Instead, get flooring that is least likely to sleep. Options like cork, linoleum, rubber, etc. make for great flooring.

Apart from the material, another option you can consider while designing a bedroom for the elderly is carpeting. If possible to implement, end-to-end carpeting is the safest option as it provides a relatively soft surface upon hard landings. Moreover, it also looks good, with the only drawback being its frequent maintenance.

  • Walkways

It’s not only public spaces that need to make their walkways public-friendly; even private spaces, like a bedroom, should have a defined walkway.

The best way to make a safe walkway is to position the furniture intelligently. Take care that fixtures such as almirahs, consoles, bed posts, etc. have enough clearance for two people to pass. It’s also a good idea to layer the feet of furniture with clay, rubber or double-sided tape, to prevent stubbing a toe.

Next, ensure that there are no transitions in the walkway. There should minimal transition from hard flooring to carpeting, back to hard flooring. In-between rooms, transitions are unavoidable; however, inside a room, transitions shouldn’t exist.

  • Lighting

As it is with the streets, bedrooms should be adequately lit.

Instead of debating over whether bulbs with a cool hue or those with a warm hue should be placed, ideally, it’d be best to get adjustable bulbs.

The best ones connect to the home’s wifi, but since these might get too complex for older people, it’s best to get bulbs which change color by turning them on and off.

This ensures that older people can have cool white light when they wish to without wreaking havoc with their circadian rhythms.

Lastly, keep the switches within easy reach of the edge of the bed. Having multiple switches for the same bulb might seem absurd, but might work out for an old person, just ensure that no switch acts as a master circuit-breaker (i.e., if there are two switches for a bulb, ensure that if one is turned on, the other must be turned off, and vice-versa. The bulb should be operable by either switch independently).

  1. Bathrooms

Perhaps one of the most important areas of interior design as far as older people are concerned is the bathroom.

Start off by ensuring that the flooring isn’t too slippery. While “luxury” bath floorings, such as ceramic, look better, they’re not worth the compromise on safety.

Next, we move on to grab handles. Old people are prone to falling, and they’re prone to falling the most in the bathroom. Therefore, ensure there are a few grab handles mounted on the walls. These can also double up as mounts for, say, towels, so win-win.

Ensure that the commode is high enough for the elderly person. If it is too low, those with bad joints, especially knees, may have a hard time getting up. Moreover, too much strain may also lead to dizziness.

Take a look at the faucets. Faucets with knobs are very hard to operate for senior citizens, especially those with arthritis, as they require a stronger grip and more force to twist. Instead, replace the faucets with those which use levers for operation, as these are much easier to use. Ideally, try to look for a single-handle faucet.

Next, take a look at the bath/shower. Usually, a step-in shower is safer than a tub, because the chances of drowning are less and it also requires less energy as far as ingress and egress are concerned. If, however, a tub is required, check out these tubs for seniors.

However, the bath or shower must contain adhesive stickers. It is best to stick them near and on the grab rails, but some of them placed at strategic places on the walls would also be useful.

Take a look at the shower as well. Make sure that the shower-head is detachable, as that makes light work of bathing. Also, ensure that the shower has no curb, as it is very easy for an elderly person to trip over one.

  1. Doors

As is with the bathroom faucets, ensure that the doors don’t have any knobs to open or close, instead they should have levers for their operation.

Also, ensure that the doors are wide enough, at least 30- to 32-inches. They should allow wheelchairs and walkers to pass through easily.

Ensure that the doors aren’t too heavy and hinged in a manner that they swing backward if enough pressure isn’t applied.

  1. Kitchen

The kitchen is another place where senior citizens like to spend a lot of time, so designing it according to them is a must.

Firstly, install a pullout pantry. While optional, it is strongly recommended as it makes light work of finding ingredients and also reduces the walking-around an elderly person has to do.

Next, it is strongly recommended for you to round sharp edges so that they don’t strike or cut the user. For those suffering from heart problems, a single cut that refuses to clot can be fatal, therefore, rounding the edges off is strongly recommended.

Take a look at the sink height as well. Choose a sink that isn’t too deep, as this would imply bending on the part of the user and old people are averse to bending.

Lastly, take a look at the cupboards. Under-the-counter cupboards with doors are less than ideal; instead, opt for drawers as these are much more convenient and involve less bending on the user’s part.

Conclusion

As members of a responsible society, it is our duty to ensure that we design public and personal spaces so that the elderly find them easy to operate and navigate.

There are several aspects of such design, including lighting, infrastructure, flooring, etc. and covering all of them would require more than the whole day and night!

However, this guide is a good starting point, and every effort has been made to consolidate the most crucial aspects of design for the elderly. It should provide you with a basic knowledge of the needs of the elderly.

Happy designing!

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