Designing for the Elderly

Professor of Architecture Paul Windley of the University of Idaho, seeking the motives of elderly who were eager to get into an assisted-living facility, interviewed scores of people to find out why.

The answer, by and large, is bad architecture.

How will Auntie see you graduate?

It makes sense, doesn't it, that architecture should be tailored to the needs of the people who actually use these built environments. Unfortunately, all too frequently, architects, builders, and planners are ignorant and foolhardy when it comes to designing spaces for real world human beings. Say you're elderly. Suffered a stroke. Blind. Deaf. You need a cane. A walker. A wheelchair. A colostomy bag. You have severe arthritis. A balance disorder. An inability to scale stairs with a twelve-inch rise.

Since behavior is a function of the person and their environment [B = f(P+E)], it's easy to see that it doesn't take much for a "normal" built environment to become detrimental to well-being and functionality via its complete uselessness and preponderance to hazard.

Some of the more innovative elderly have come up with solutions. Fridge in an awkward spot in your too-small kitchen? Back your wheelchair in to access your milk and eggs. Too drafty around the door? Hang aprons and newspapers around the cracks (or have the landlord install weather stripping, as Professor Windley did for one elderly lady). Threshold hard to cross? Slap a plank of plywood down.

Grandpa can't reach his medication

Solutions, yes, but pathetic ones. It would be far better if these flaws had never been designed in the first place. What makes it worse is the fact that many of these gaffes were designed by architects specifically for the elderly. It just doesn't make sense to install thousand dollar ranges in every unit of an apartment complex for the elderly if the tenants lack the strength necessary to lift their pots and pans over a lip on the side of a range.

What Professor Windley is calling for, particularly among the up-and-coming generation of young architects, is for spaces and environments designed for the real daily needs of its users. I don't think that's too much to ask.

There are a few points I'd like to make:

1. Behavior is a function of a person and their environment. A person's "competence" is the aggregate of their ability to cope with the demands of their environment.


A person's environment must be demanding enough but not too demanding, lest maladaptive behavior ensue. Imagine. You're brilliant but you have no privacy. Or you're stupid and there's all these people using big words! Or you're blind and you find yourself lost in a labyrinth. Well damn. Sounds like a recipe for disaster!

2. Bad design is to blame for a decreased quality of life, particularly among the elderly.

Grandma's wheelchair won't fit in the bathroom!

When a person cannot keep themselves reasonably clean, fed, or comfortable due to limits of their environment in relation to their needs and abilities, that person will soon descend into a depressed state, eventually becoming animalistic. Personal example: when stranded in an isolated village in south eastern Burkina Faso with only a box of cereal to last the week, with no knowledge of how to acquire water, with a knee problem that made squatting over "the hole" difficult, and a terrible grasp of the Gulmancema language, my quality of life decreased rapidly. As though my body began to slip into a sort of hibernation mode, I slept twenty hours a day easily, and when awake, my thoughts were brief, animalistic, and focused only on the basics of survival.

3. Environments need to be designed for the real daily needs of its users. Environments should not be built purely "on spec" but should be designed for the actual needs of its users. Rooms and doorways need to be large enough to facilitate movement, especially if the environment is specifically intended for the elderly or disabled populations. It is not, I would think, that some architects are sadists, but rather, are ignorant of the ambulation needs of someone who cannot use part or all of their body. Perhaps sensitivity training is in order, or, more delightfully, perhaps these architects and designers should be forced to live in their own dreadful creations. Mwa ha ha.


+ Did you enjoy this?

1. Like Architecture Addiction and you'll receive notifications on Facebook when there's something new on the site.
* Some browsers don't show the Facebook Like Box -- and no one seems to know why! If you don't see our Facebook Like Box, you can use this link to visit Architecture Addiction on Facebook.


2. Donate a book to the Architecture Addiction Library


3. Support this site. People typically give $12. You help make Architecture Addiction possible. Thank you for your support!


4. And tell me what you think... I really want to know!