The architecture and design of senior living communities

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FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

Filial piety has a strong tradition in Asian culture. In the Philippines, our debt of gratitude (utang na loob) is a definitive part of our culture, especially towards our parents and grandparents. Sending our aging parents or grandparents to live in senior homes is considered more as a last resort, rather than what is expected, but maybe the trend for the future as dwellings become smaller and professionalized care going in senior living communities.

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But elsewhere in the world, the reality of an aging population is being considered a development challenge. Caring for the elderly can be costly. Economic growth and productivity too depends on a young adult labor force. Much of the developed world is now entering an unprecedented era of “hyperaging” as a result of falling fertility and rising longevity. The Baby Boomers are now the new “teenagers.” As such, there is a growing market for retirement communities in Asia, and the Philippines is being tapped at as the number one cost-effective retirement destination in Asia.

A home away from home
Last 2012, I was a guest speaker at the Retirement & Healthcare Coalition (RHC) International in their forum on Planning and Designing Senior Living Communities in Asia. The RHC assists in the promotion of retirement and healthcare in the Philippines.

In the forum, it was unanimous that the Philippines is the best place for retirees to live comfortably, since the cost of living is lower than most Asian countries. In terms of climate, it is better than most Western countries, and it’s a plus that the Philippines has a large English speaking population. Moreover, the Filipinos place a lot of importance on family ties, so Filipino retirement home workers have a natural predisposition towards the older population. It’s no coincidence that the Philippines is considered number one in terms of customer care. In contrast, Japan and Korea’s pensions and care for the elderly are among world’s best, but both countries are the most expensive to retire in.

As of the last population census by the National Statistical Board (NSB), the official total population in the Philippines is 97.35 million and is expected to increase to 141 million by 2040. In terms of economic growth, the country would likely grow by 8.4 percent from 2010 to 2020, and 5.8 percent from 2040 to 2050. According to Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), this is a good thing. This gives the Philippines the upper hand as the expected population increase will tremendously help the country’s economy as a crucial part of the labor force.

The world is starting to recognize the importance of the Philippines as a “rising tiger.” The Philippines is vigorous in making sure that with the population and economic surge to meet increasing densification demands in urban centers, the projected increase in tourist influx will also help attract potential investors from the private sector.

Designing senior communities
In order to make a more competitive market for senior living communities in the Philippines, certain architectural and planning designs should be considered for senior homes/communities. In the book Retirement Facilities: Planning, Design, and Marketing by Goodman & Smith, among such considerations are those that pertain to the changing sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and even taste. Aside from this, body structure and composition, memory and mental impairment, emotional responses, equilibrium and balance, strength and dexterity, and putting up appropriate signage should be considered in the design plan as well.

As the eye becomes yellow and less transparent with age, certain colors are not as discernible, and depth perception and peripheral vision are moderately impaired. Thus, it’s better to use accentuating contrasts on walls or doors, and offset long hallways with appropriate lighting to avoid tunnel vision. It’s also better to use the color yellow, orange, and red is advised, since these colors are easier for older people to see. Avoid using color patterns that can be perceived to vibrate because it might trigger vertigo, dizziness, and nausea to the older people. Instead, use the color patterns effectively as subtle ways to help the seniors move around the home, from color-coded signs, memory cues, to different colors for different floor levels.

One of the first senses to be affected by age is our hearing. Better acoustics can be shaped and controlled by architectural detailing by using absorptive finish materials. The sense of smell, meanwhile, evokes the quickest and deepest responses, often without conscious knowledge of its effect. As we age, there is a slight reduction in the overall ability to smell. Commit to good routine maintenance, use odor-resistant carpeted floors, and materials impervious to absorption and decay. Variance in texture is also advised to help discern plain or complicated objects. Aging brings a reduced sensitivity to hot and cold. Water heating systems can be calibrated to prevent scalding. Our body structure and composition changes too as we age. Aging brings loss of height and corresponding muscle deterioration, so shelf and cabinet heights should be appropriate for older people, even the alarm and elevator buttons. We should design our senior structures and housing for the differently abled seniors.

Older people tend to lose strength in their joints. Design modifications should be made to facilitate easy access. For example, European-style door handles are preferred over door knobs, while delta type faucet handles are suited for older people for easier grip. With the gradual reduction of the nerve tissue, this greatly affects older people’s equilibrium and balance. Non-slip surfaces and support railings would tremendously help, and even encourage the seniors to move around the retirement home.

One of the most delicate things to consider is the change in emotional response as we age. Incidence of depression is twice as high for some retirees due to loss of loved ones and being moved from their home environment. As such, it is imperative to design sociability into the environment. Encourage group settings to avoid being alone. This can be done by simply arranging the common living areas with furniture appropriate for group gatherings, with single armchairs positioned near windows for those who’d like to have some personal time by themselves.

Location is of outmost importance as well. Elsewhere in the world, senior communities are located within walking distance of a commercial establishment, a park, and a hospital, assuring senior residents security, comfort, and plenty of activities to do.

Applying the design principles
In one of the senior community center designs Palafox Associates did, the first thing that we considered as architects and designers is mobility. The senior citizens need to get around and perform their daily tasks, which could prove problematic instead of simple. In the architectural design, we replaced the stairs with elevators and ramps whenever possible. Upon entering the community center, a large winding ramp with non-slip surfaces and support railings goes all the way up to the second and third floor.

The design also required more space for the seniors to get around, so wide hallways with appropriate lighting was considered. Moreover, we planned the building system to accommodate better air circulation and more light for the seniors to see at the same level they did when they were younger.

The community center design will integrate a barangay office, medical clinic, and a multi-purpose hall on the ground floor to host activities for seniors. A jogging path is also integrated into the landscape design behind the community center, so that senior citizens can walk under the refreshing green canopy.

Venturing into designing senior community homes is not just a complex project, it’s establishing one of the most intimate relationships with our parents, the same parents who spent years taking care of us when we were young, making sure we didn’t hurt our delicate young bodies. It’s about time we show the same courtesy back to them.

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1 Comment

  1. As far as accessibility features is concerned, we can reference the ANSI A117.1 Standards. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel.