The spaces we occupy influence our quality of life and our health, and that’s especially true for the elderly and disabled. The number of seniors moving into an assisted living setting is increasing and will continue to do so. Without understanding the elderly population’s characteristics, designers can’t meet their needs. Below I’ll share the basics of designing spaces for the elderly.

With the use of well-designed lighting, proper flooring materials, level and interesting walking paths, and well-designed handrails and supports, the elderly can increase their mobility and get more exercise which increases both their physical and mental health. Long corridors distance residents from essential activities such as dining. In a typical assisted living residence, 66% of residents require assistance walking. Sedentary activities can’t replace physical activity and every effort should be made to maintain mobility levels. Circulatory problems, agitation, and depression are at least partially caused by lack of motion. The fear of falling keeps people immobile. People feel more comfortable moving around in an environment that offers stability. A well-designed handrail allows seniors to grasp the rail and permits them to glide along the rail, leaning on the forearm. And oval shape, with a broader, flat surface that can be used for arm support is best. Insufficient lighting is one of the biggest problems for the elderly who need higher general illumination levels. When lighting is insufficient, older people give up on activities.

Using softer flooring materials such as padded vinyl flooring or a low-pile carpet helps mitigate the hazards of a fall. Carpet also makes a setting more homelike, adding warmth, improving acoustics, and reducing glare. Patterns in the flooring material should be kept to a minimum, because they can put seniors off balance. There should be a clear distinction between the vertical wall plane and the horizontal floor plane. That means matching the wall base to the wall, not the floor. Because of impaired depth perception, a sharp contrast between the color of the floor and the wall is necessary. Balance is affected when the distinction is not clear.

Providing clearances for the use of wheelchairs and walkers is important. It’s often necessary to exceed accessibility code requirement to meet the needs of the elderly who often require more than a 5’ x 5’ turnaround space in bathrooms or extra space for their elbows when wheeling through doorways.

The majority of older people have vision problems, are sensitive to glare, and are also hearing impaired. These problems cause discomfort and affect attention span, making conversations difficult. Dining areas filled with glare and noise exacerbate the problem. Tables should be small so food isn’t out of reach, and the chair arms should fit under a table. Arms on chairs should extend beyond the seat so the person can stand up and sit with better support.

Most buildings aren’t designed with an understanding of managing not only physical impairment, but cognitive impairment. Design is integral to wellbeing for the elderly. The number of disabled seniors is expected to grow and they’ll be a larger percentage of the total elderly population in the future. Most seniors have multiple disabilities, but environments can be designed to provide support, enhance, and simplify lives, and make them more enjoyable.