How spatial design can celebrate our seniors

By Shannon Stussy, Junior Consultant

Youth is wasted on the young. While many of us can appreciate the sentiment behind this adage, the irony nonetheless paints aging as an inferior and undesirable alternative. These kinds of ageist ideologies have been circulating for a long time, but aging is not the disappointing fate it was once considered to be.

In Denmark, elderly people are not only living longer, they are also leading healthier, more productive, and active lives than yesteryear. But senior citizens, despite their positive life experiences, occupy an increasingly withdrawn role in society, in more ways than one. It is important to remind ourselves that aging is a privilege, not a burden, and to reflect that in the physical and metaphysical world around us.

Aging: not like the old days

What is the actual experience of aging, particularly in Scandinavia? We set out to answer that question in a comprehensive study across Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, looking to find shared commonalities and pain points among individuals aged 60-80. Respondents share similar goals and expressed a wish to retain their productivity, even in retirement, as a means of upholding their self-worth and identity.

These observations were largely confirmed by a Guardian article following the lives (and very busy schedules) of Denmark’s retired population. In addition to being highly active, retired individuals in Denmark - and in particular, retired women - are the most content in Europe. Aging is clearly not passive nor inactive. Rather, it is a fulfilling, exciting new stage in life that opens new doors and opportunities for growth and is anything but wasted on adults.

Competency, not age cohort

Despite these generally positive accounts of aging, however, a lingering age-based pessimism (or worse, discrimination) persists across Western cultures. Prevailing stereotypes about aging show elderly individuals as weak, reclusive, or unproductive, but many rightfully challenge such categorizations. As one respondent in our study expressed, “I’m annoyed about the rhetoric around age -- the label ‘old’  is always negative. But many different factors define being old, it’s not just about age, so we shouldn’t put people into boxes.”

To remove these “boxes,” it is better to define aging by personal competencies, not by numbers. After all, our study found that age does not dictate what activities seniors engage in -- physical health does, which is something people choose to adapt rather than be limited by. Through focusing on competencies, conceptions of aging are shifted from what cannot be done to what can and will be done, restoring a sense of agency among those who are older.

Can design be ageist?

Unfortunately, ageist beliefs carry on into the built world around us, as well. Space, as a built product that influences and is influenced by social values, captures certain biases and beliefs. Copenhagen architecture studio dominique + serena offers a particular case study in Nørrebro, highlighting how a nursing home still gave form to ageist generalizations. At the entrance sits a contemplative, heavily covered space meant for outdoor relaxation. Most striking, however, is its complete isolation from the surrounding schools, animal farm, and park. This senior seating area broadcasts an assumption that the elderly become more reserved, withdrawn, and vulnerable with age, and need a protective space sheltering them from lively surroundings.

By spatially withdrawing older residents from their surroundings, designers reflect and reinforce the negative association between old age and reclusiveness. Reinforced reclusiveness can, in turn, increase feelings of loneliness among elderly residents, which poses its own health issues (so much so, that the UK and Japan have strategically appointed Ministers of Loneliness). Withdrawing senior citizens from their surroundings is also reinforced through urban planning and is not limited to single architectural structures.

For those living in senior care homes, their mobility and physical competencey is limited not only by the materials used in uneven pavements, but by the proximity of high-traffic roads. Their experience and confidence in safely navigating the city can become limited the closer they are to these traffic hubs, and their engagement with their surroundings and fellow pedestrians restricted. Designed spaces - and more importantly, cities - have the potential to do more harm than good, and it is critical to identify where design restricts rather than aids.

Toward age-friendly cities

How can design be optimized to create “age-friendly” environments? Ultimately, an “age-friendly city” is a city that includes spaces and designs that are in constant conversation with the needs, practices, and capabilities of its senior citizens. It is a city where the scope of “accessibility”  is more than navigable infrastructure, but the degree of social access between people of varying competencies and generations: who is interacting where, and how? What social norms do these spaces reinforce, and who do these spaces exclude?

In short, it is a city where intangible experiences are as much a blueprint for development as tangible structures, a place that puts human insights first - something we know more than a little about and are happy to prioritize.