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The way we approach senior living has ‘stagnated’, experts come together to innovate

As Australia’s population grows and inevitably ages, we are increasingly asking ourselves how we can continue to live with respect, comfort and most of all the freedoms we want as we grow old.

Salutogenic is a favourite buzzword in the aged care sector and architecture in aged care and retirement communities is something constantly discussed, but often with few fresh ideas.

But a group of design professionals, innovators, planners and seniors have come together to tackle the issue of senior living with a slightly different view. Rather than design just for comfort, or looks, the group aims to design to aid longevity.

Hosted by The University of Queensland and DMA Engineers, the 120 assembled experts took part in a charrette – a fancy word for a workshop devoted to a concerted effort to solve a problem, or plan the design of something – and this was a rare opportunity for teams of people from different fields to work together and do some blue sky thinking.

The University of Queensland’s Director of the Healthy Ageing Initiative, Professor Laurie Buys, said the charrette has come at a time where we must decide whether Australia’s ageing population is a burden or an opportunity.

“The reason this charrette was so important is because the ageing population is, in fact, an opportunity – and this was an opportunity to challenge the assumptions that aren’t necessarily true anymore,” Buys said

 “Older people are thinking and acting very differently than ever before, and we know that future generations of older people will have very high expectations about maintaining their engaged lifestyles.”

The experts gathered into groups and took part in a design competition. The chance to throw the rule book out of the window was appealing for many of the designers who, they say, often encounter bureaucratic roadblocks when working in the aged care sector.

“You can throw a lot of the things that normally constrain your level of thinking about it out the window and think more generally about it. It’s a hypothetical thing, rather than an actual client. That’s what was really good about it,” said Ingrid Marshall from Deicke Richards, a design firm with extensive aged care experience.

Marshall says that design in residential aged care in particular is driven by “legislative conditions” which can often make them “hospital like” and “institutional by their nature”.

Design in aged care stagnant

DMA Engineers managing director Russell Lamb agrees, and says that designing a dwelling fit for people as they age under these conditions is difficult.

“It’s quite restrictive. In fact, it’s probably one of the most restrictive. I think that’s one of the struggles that the industry’s dealing with at the moment, where we hear terms about ageing in place, but if you go from a retirement living facility, where it’s in most regards an apartment that younger people in their twenties, thirties, forties may be happy to live in, to when you’re actually going to an aged care Class 9C patient room. The amount of services and facilities within that room are fundamentally different.

“One of the challenges the industry is really faced with is how we can have a space which transforms over a matter of years and transforms in a way that maintains the character of the place and doesn’t become too clinical, too quickly.”

Lamb says that the experts coming together for a charette was a recognition that the way we approach aged care and retirement living has stagnated.

“As an industry, we talk a lot about the innovation that we all do in our various disciplines, but ultimately we’re not doing enough.

“To some extent it’s the same old, same old, so we really need to find ways to crack through some of the current barriers and obstacles that the industry is facing to make a real difference.

“I think by virtue of the charrette itself, the extent of collaboration, the sharing of ideas, the willingness to put things out there to simply discuss and kick around, was something that we don’t see in a normal design and documentation procedure around our projects.

“So to have a safe place to, as I say, put those ideas out there, I think was a big outcome from the charrette. It also increased or broke down barriers between different disciplines, I suppose, of people who tend to get a little bit stuck in their own silo.”

Teams had a choice of three localities in Redlands, on Brisbane’s bayside, to work on, where they were challenged to create visionary, innovative and highly connected designs to meet the needs of an intergenerational community in 2050.

Marshall’s charrette group focused on having their hypothetical retirement village well connected to the community. She says that too often facilities are cut off from the wider community by virtue of cheaper land forcing providers to the outskirts of town.

“A lot of the people in there really thrive on having visitors. And if it’s a really long drive to go there, it’s going to decrease the number of visitors.

“So [we need] to have more and more options for seniors to live more in the inner city. Even if it means that they’re in high rise apartments, or multi-storey structured developments.”

Director of Subtropical Cities and facilitator of the Longevity by Design charrette, Dr Rosemary Kennedy, said traditional, walled retirement villages and separate seniors’ enclaves have had their day.

“Many of the ideas proposed by the teams shared a common thread of physical and social connectedness, which are both key to promoting increased choice, economic development and job creation.

“Ideas ranged from ‘super blocks’ that reconfigure three typical suburban house blocks into five multi-generational residences, to new economic models,” Dr Kennedy said.

“The teams visualised spaces designed to enable older people to continue to be creative and productive, rather than just existing in places padded with amenities and activities to pass the time that actually push them further into dependence.

“Connectedness and sharing might sound obvious and what we all might want, but the Longevity by Design teams showed what the ‘longevity’ economy could look like.”

Professor Buys said that the charrette was an opportunity for people “who are thinking differently” to come together and “challenge the way we see, design, and create change”.

“The biggest challenge for senior living design is how we think. There are many fundamental structures that need to be changed, but really what’s holding us back is our imagination and our willingness to challenge the assumptions and create a different future,” she said.

Seven teams took away awards for their innovative pitches, including the UQ Healthy Ageing Initiative Award, the People’s Choice Award and the Redland City Council Award, which gave the awarded team the opportunity to present their ideas to a group of experts and practitioners at a future Redland City Council health care and social assistance forum.

A full list of award winners and design pitches can be found here.

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One comment

  1. Totally agree that we need a fairly radical change/innovation in this area, Particularly in the area of Hotel Services where I have been involved for 40+ years. We need to include the increasing number of people now recieving home care packagers from the Government.
    The other area where we have one of the longest and most dedicated volunteer groups providing meals is Meals on Wheels.