Let’s face it, most aged care facilities aren’t fun. They offer few opportunities for friends and relatives to enjoy meaningful activities together because the focus is on patient management, effective clinical procedures and infection control. Evidence suggests that many residents are passive, under stimulated and clinically depressed. Staff are frequently overworked and stressed.
In the past, housing and aged care facilities for the elderly were typically uninspiring places that few of us would choose to live in. Floor plans were usually a large-scale version of a domestic residence with bedrooms, lounge, kitchen and dining areas.
We need to see elderly people as paying customers, not people who need managing.
The challenges with today’s care homes
These days, there are aged care homes with adjacent cafés, medical services or supporting functions such as hair salons or chapels. But what about other services and venues which form part of everyday life? Where are the libraries, shops, restaurants, museums, music venues, art galleries, aquatic or sport centres? People who spend all their time inside a facility lose connection with the broader community, so we need to bring the community to them. Equally, aged care facilities are traditionally located on the suburban fringe: what if we make them the heart of the community and as part of mixed-use development?
What if aged care facilities could be great places to live and provide a warm engaging space that family and friends would happily visit?
Innovation through design
Major shifts are occurring within the sector, driving an increased opportunity to innovate, rethink and challenge the norms about how we deliver care, rather than just reacting to, and fixing, short term problems. Providers are waking up to the fact that their service needs to deliver more than just basic care. The focus now needs to be on delivering exceptional customer experience, for both the resident and their visitors.
Design plays a key role in this process. It can help to synthesise the needs of the operator, resident and relatives to enhance the living experience, personalise the service and reduce cost. Incorporating new digital products will change the built environment and challenge the familiar layout of current facilities.
Lessons can be taken from student housing and education projects. There the design is driven by market demand and customer expectations with an emphasis on fun, interaction, stimulation and engagement. Spaces within these buildings offer the opportunity to learn, read, study, rest, exercise and, most of all, socialise. The buildings prioritise amenities and choice of activities in various social settings, using a person-centred design approach.
The current ageing population is different from any other before with far higher expectations when it comes to their quality of life. They are tech savvy, well-travelled and want to continue to enjoy family, friends and community. Technology can be used as an enabler of efficiency and intergenerational engagement, but how do you incorporate these things into the residential environment and in a way that is visually appealing?
There are many different technologies emerging to support management of facilities, assist and provide staff with valuable data, help with access control and achieve passive surveillance through smart sensors.
These technologies are designed to make operations more efficient, so carers are able to spend more time with the residents. This might include embedding sensors in apartments which set off an alarm if a resident falls or a device that allows people with limited mobility to control appliances using hand gestures. This technology might be used to assess a resident’s behaviour and cognitive function over a period of time.
Technology and multi-generational design concept
Imagine walking around a facility where you can explore different areas at your leisure. Think fixed stations with visual interactive screens offering various digital activities, computer games and immersive experiences catering for all age groups, fitness levels and cognitive abilities.
These immersive platforms encourage talking points between residents themselves, residents and carers, and families or friends. This offers a positive way to get children involved with elderly residents too – both can assist each other and learn, creating a bonding experience. There are programs like Ageless Play, known from the ABC TV series ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds‘ featuring multi-generational playgroups. The results of these social experiments showed that intergenerational contact can improve the health and wellbeing of older people, helping them to lead happier and healthier lives.
For the built environment this means radical change. The introduction of technology requires purpose-built areas where residents can have 24-hour access that are safe to eliminate the risk of injury. The technology must be easy to use by staff, residents and visitors. Some of the main immersive design features could be located close to the main entry and open to use by the public. Consideration should be given to co-location with childcare centres or schools to encourage intergenerational programs using technology as a foundation. To achieve these goals, it will require close cooperation between operators, care staff, technology developers, scientific researchers and architects/interior designers.
The following concept is focused on a care facility where residents are happy, engaged and stimulated, and staff are inspired by their working environment.
The concept is broken up into four main areas within the care facility:
- Community indoor play space
The community indoor play space would be located close to the entry and reception areas and visible from the street. It will be a welcoming area for both the community and the aged care residents to enjoy. A mixture of digital and physical activities suitable for all ages to enjoy, particularly young children and the elderly. Separated and secured from the rest of the aged care facility, yet close to the main reception allowing for supervision and assistance as required.
Digital and sensory playgrounds provide an experience that family and friends will truly enjoy, where kids and even teenagers are engaged in creating new fun memories. The area will be a fun place to explore, with bright colours (think bright interiors and colourful digital art), different textures on the walls, and sensory discovery. This will lead to an outdoor space, which draws you in and piques your curiosity, with outdoor seating, a play area and lots of colourful plants and rich green foliage.
This would provide more access to the outside world and help the residents feel more connected to their community. The indoor play space provides the perfect venue for an intergenerational playgroup, where the young and elderly can participate in group activities. For those residents who are more reserved, they may benefit from sitting and observing people coming and going and interacting with the environment.
- Semi-private seating areas
An entrance close to the reception area will take you through to a more secured area within the residential facility. This area will provide a diverse setting for semi-private interactions with families, friends and carers.
Inspired by the modern coworking designed offices, community and student housing design, there will be different seating nooks catering for different purposes. Small seating areas cater for individuals or small group gatherings and more spacious areas will be suitable for birthday parties and larger gatherings. The area will be quite large and open, allowing for good passive surveillance and supervision, yet will provide space for private conversation with friends and family.
Smart TVs, virtual and augmented reality, computer games, visual interactive and immersive tools will assist with learning, interaction and memory enhancement. These tools are conversation starters, helping to connect families and encouraging physical movement without feeling like it’s exercise.
How about a modern take on the photo booth for family engagement. This could allow the family to take digital images and send them to their email or social media as well as having fun with different filters, effects, images and text.
- Semi-private custom purpose-built rooms
Adjacent to the semi-private seating area, are custom purpose-built rooms with different activities that the residents can easily wander in and out of.
These are separate rooms for different activities for residents, families and carers including:
- a movie room, semi enclosed to invite residents to watch movies and documentaries
- a virtual reality/games room for fun interactive physical gaming, and
- a large room which could be used for educational purposes, group exercise or therapeutic therapies.
- Private activity stations
As you move through the care facility you will get to a more secured area which is only available to residents and their carers. This area will be much quieter, calm and will act as an intermediary space between the louder social areas and the resident’s rooms.
The space will provide a talking point between carers and residents to have meaningful/personal conversations, getting to know each other, exploring personal interests and sharing stories.
The area will house a mixture of activity stations and interactive screens which are perfect for two people to use together. Think about an activity station with a series of buttons next to images of wildlife or nature which trigger different sounds, or a station that allows you to plug in to a documentary or short movie.
The stations will be fixed throughout the facility and corridors, helping the residents to navigate around their environment.
The future of aged care is fun, interactive and a great place for family and friends to visit, and caters for the residents’s different needs. By using creative design and making the most of technology we can construct spaces that encourage intergenerational play and connection. If we can’t bring the residents to the community, we must bring the community to the residents by creating a space they will want to visit again and again.
Let’s remove past fear and reservations about residential care homes: with the technology and design at our fingertips the future never looked so good.
Daniela Kaiser is senior interior architect at Allen Jack+Cottier, specialising in aged care, dementia and seniors’s living design.Do you have an idea for a story?
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