Senior Living Landscape

Senior living landscape – Time for change

November 1st, 2018 Posted by All, Landscape

That people are living longer is an incontrovertible truth of the 21st century. Innovations and improvement to healthcare, advancement and convergence of technologies, alongside a broader health consciousness and adoption of healthier lifestyles are extending lives beyond the limits imagined by previous generations. In the United Kingdom, some 18 percent of the population is aged 65 years and older, with this number predicted to grow over the coming years to reach almost 25 percent in 2046 [Office for National Statistics, 2018]. At the same time, there has been a revolution in the way we choose to lead our lives – people no longer feel compelled to marry, are consciously opting to stay single or refrain from having children. In the very near future, it will be incumbent upon elderly living provision to keep this new generation of senior citizens active, whilst also combating feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Whilst there is understandably a lot of focus on the internal environment of senior living and care accommodation, it is our view that for developments to be truly successful they should be looked at holistically. Residents should have an opportunity to live a good life inside and outside their homes whatever their age, gender and background. After all, numerous studies have shown that being outdoors has a positive impact on the health, well-being and overall quality of life of elderly people. This is where well thought out senior living landscape design comes in.

It’s arguable that, in the past, landscaping provision for senior living developments was ostensibly decorative – regimented pathways with smooth paving through carefully manicured lawns – rather than providing functional and active spaces that encourage residents to head outdoors. It’s interesting to note how studies conducted in the USA found that landscape elements that increase outdoor engagement by elderly people are sometimes not what we would most probably think. It wasn’t always the smooth paving, stable seating and easy access to paved walkways that encouraged outdoor use, but good views from the walkways and windows that scored highest and would potentially increase the time spent outside by 3.5 times that of the average rate.

Unsurprisingly, clean footpaths and a wide range of plant material were also recognised as an encouragement for residents to spend more time outside on a weekly basis. Also interesting from the social and architectural point of view is that seniors highly appreciated the privacy afforded by their resident rooms, and even more, the views of vehicular movement during their outdoor activity. Furthermore, the top desired landscape features that would encourage outdoors activity were: the ability to see the birds or wildlife in general, the opportunity to take a round trip by linked walkways, and the outdoors visually linked to the indoors [ASLA, access 28.07.18].

Results of these studies also allow us to formulate the main design concept and should include aspects such as: nature elements, choice/autonomy, safety/security, comfort/accessibility and activity to achieve the most sustainable and comfortable senior living design.

In many care or senior living scenarios, one often observes a lack of activity and residents tending to remain indoors in their apartments for large parts of a day. One of the reasons for this may be the lack of confidence in overcoming real-world obstacles. Well-designed landscape should provide features that encourage people to push their boundaries, for instance different kinds of paving that can help seniors extend their mobility in an environment that they perceive as safe. Comparative examples of this can be seen in implemented solutions such as the introduction of changing levels [Tabar P., 2014]: ramps may be challenging at first, but in time residents can set up their own goals and slowly conquer the ‘obstacles’.

Additionally, giving seniors a choice can prove liberating and improve their life quality. Simple solutions should be included in the design process, such as the provision of more footpaths and diversifying the experience that can be gained during a walk. Making the space attractive all year round is imperative; as landscape architects we need to focus more on seasonal planting to give the end user opportunities to enjoy and revel in their favourite times of year. Introducing multiple, interlinking closed-loop footpaths will increase the attractiveness, the feeling of making your own choices and, at the same time, an opportunity to eliminate the anxiety of being lost. The therapeutic benefits of safe and engaging community spaces are already recognised as a way of dealing with dementia.

As the senior demographic rapidly changes, the concept of independent senior living developments in urban areas has gained traction. Urban living is attractive to seniors who have spent their whole lives in vibrant environments or who just want to live ‘where the action is’ and where there are multiple amenities accessible. Additionally, seniors are increasingly reluctant to live in age-segregated communities. They want to stay up-to-date with the surrounding life [Mullaney, 2017]. Limited urban space is more challenging and needs a flexible landscape solution tailored to different activities, but makes it possible to give the elderly in need of care a whole new opportunity to live and interact easily with other generations.

Seniors want to interact with all ages of the community that surrounds them, so it is important that the outdoor spaces should provide a mix of activities. One of the current trends is to engage seniors in gardening, giving them a real purpose to go outdoors. Well-designed beds with herbs, vegetables and other types of planting can improve physical health and mobility and, more importantly, can reduce stress, eliminate loneliness and create choices to work independently or integrate with others. Indeed, research has found that gardening can give a sense of well-being and satisfaction with life [Teo J., 2016].

The present concern is that senior living could get commoditised – or “McDonald’s-ised” [Perkins B., 2009], but as landscape architects it is imperative that we provide designs for the senior sector which have a human scale and local uniqueness with all the care provided.

To conclude: “There is no building type where you can see a more direct correlation between doing something right and its impact on people’s lives. You can build an environment for the ageing that is confusing, imprisoning, and depressing, or you can build one that frees them, encourages them, and enhances their quality of life. This is a building type where you don’t have to look very hard to see what difference you’ve made in people’s lives.” [Perkins B., 2009].

Gosia Soltan | Landscape Architect