Let’s design homes that encourage elderly people to live fulfilling lives – rather than sticking them in institutional spaces in which they simply bide their time

Providing accommodation for older people that can cope with their changing physical and cognitive needs has become the new agenda for the retirement housing sector. Instead of simply providing institutions for the elderly, sensitive design can be combined with appropriate care management to create responsive and supportive environments.

There can never be a single model of housing for older people that will satisfy every cultural or economic situation, but by looking at models that have already been tried and tested – for example, in American and mainland Europe – it is possible to identify which features might be appropriate in a particular situation. In many instances, more can be learned from the failures than from the successes.

It should be an individual’s right to remain where they wish until death. To be forced to move because a home is unable to cater for one’s needs in older age is a sign of the building’s failure. This not only applies to the structure but also to the care services. It is becoming increasingly apparent, particularly in the UK, that personal accommodation must be addressed in order to avoid the need for a premature move to a medical environment.

Developers and architects must be encouraged to recognise that, today, institutional regimes and environments, are unacceptable. They must aim to provide accommodation for normal people who, in spite of their age, are striving for a fulfilling life. Above all, we are not designing for people who are marking time until death. If designed appropriately and imaginatively, accommodation can not only help to preserve and safeguard the inhabitants, but also enlarge their lives and their sense of independence.

There is a growing move towards assisted living models. This comprises apartments within residential developments, which have care programmes and activity spaces designed for a frail, elderly population. This residential model of long-term care originated in the Netherlands and Scandinavia and has since been taken up in the US and now in the UK.

Bad design means clinical communal spaces, long constant-width corridors, overlarge areas of glazing looking onto non-existent views, needless double doors, authoritative notices, fluorescent lighting...

The physical environment is only one part of the equation, but it is possibly the most crucial. Both visitors to a building and the staff who administer it will be affected by the building design. If it is institutional, we run the risk of encouraging an institutional regime and a pitying paternalism.

The scope of an architect’s work extends from overall planning down to the smallest detail. We must constantly remind ourselves that we are dealing with someone’s home, even though it may be a modest bedroom alongside a group of other rooms. It is easy for an architect to slip into an institutional frame of mind when dealing with communal accommodation.

In many developments we can recognise this failure fairly easily by observing the needless repetition, exaggeration of scale, lack of small and homely details, blandness in decoration and poor quality of lighting. Examples can be instantly recognised by their clinical spaces, long constant-width corridors, overlarge areas of glazing looking onto non-existent views, needless double doors, authoritative notices, fluorescent strip lighting and so on. You may say that all these manifestations are merely visual, but they result from unsympathetic planning and a general misunderstanding of the needs of older people.

Research carried out by my firm suggests we will need to respond to a growing elderly population that requires support and care to maintain as independent a life as possible. Legislative and demographic trends will certainly favour new forms of care housing that allow a person to “age in place”. This means providing care as required, but not within an institutional setting.