I’m only 49 years old, and I’ve noticed an increasing inability to hear conversations in loud restaurants. In tribes of people that have not been exposed to modern technology, older adults have pretty much the same hearing ability as infants. Hearing loss is mostly caused by a lifetime of exposure to loud noises in this modern world. Age-associated hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition among older adults. Between one third and two thirds of adults 65 years or older have hearing issues. It can be less disabling if building designers use specific knowledge and skill to design spaces that help with this problem.

Hearing loss isn’t just about volume level reduction. High frequency sounds such as consonants are the first to go while the vowels may still be loud, making speech difficult to understand. It also becomes more difficult to separate sounds and detect where the sound is coming from. For speech to be understood by the hard of hearing, the volume must be louder and reflected sound and background noise must be reduced. Additionally, “head noise” or Tinnitus often accompanies hearing loss. People who suffer from hearing loss often become withdrawn or irritable for good reason. People with hearing loss often rely on lip reading to help them ascertain what’s being discussed, so it’s important to provide good light levels in spaces for older adults.

Noise is simply unwanted sound. It’s annoying and it’s fatiguing regardless of someone’s age, and more so for an older person. When space planning, designers should locate noisy activities away from private areas. Doors that face each other create sound problems, so their placement should be offset. It’s also best not to place other elements back to back, such as electrical outlets, showers, and medicine cabinets, because sound can travel from space to another. Good insulation in the walls is also key.

Sound reverberates when floors, walls, and ceilings are all hard surfaces, and designers should select interior surfaces, materials, and furniture that do not reflect or amplify sound. A high-quality acoustical ceiling tile is one of the best ways to control sound. Ceiling fixtures with solid plastic lenses reflect sound. Using sound absorbent materials on floors, walls, and windows is a great way of improving noise levels. Carpet alone doesn’t provide enough sound absorption because it’s too low. Drapery also can’t be relied on solely because drapes would need to be very heavy, like velvet, to do much, and that would block out daylight. Light fixtures can create unwanted sound reflections, and lights with plastic lenses should be minimized.

Well-insulated walls, and insulation above the walls and sound boots at the HVAC penetrations help prevent sound from traveling between spaces. A sound absorbent material should be used in the floors to prevent sound traveling between floors. Eliminating gaps in materials by caulking with acoustical sealant has a dramatic impact. Doors and windows should be well sealed with gaskets and sound dampening features. Panic hardware on doors can be loud when used, so selecting a less noisy model is recommended. Interior windows between spaces can be laminated. Double or triple-glazed exterior windows is recommended to keep noise out from the outside. Sound cancelling systems that assess the frequency of noise and emit sound waves to cancel it can be used as a last resort for poorly designed facilities that are already built.

Although all the above are good design practices and should really be implemented for all buildings, they’re especially important when designing buildings and interior spaces for older people. More than 11 million older people have significantly impaired hearing. As designers, we have a responsibility to understand the biology of the people for which we are designing spaces. Building design isn’t only about aesthetics or even life safety. It’s about improving lives whenever possible.