Elderly Populations Influence Planning

Event: Home Design in an Aging World
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.17.08
Speakers: Jeffrey P. Rosenfeld, Ph.D. — Director, Gerontology Program & Gerontology Center, Hofstra University; Wid Chapman — Senior Faculty, Parsons The New School for Design
Organizer: Sarelle T. Weisberg, FAIA — Chair, Sub-Committee of the AIANY Housing Committee, New Directions for Design for Seniors
Sponsors: AIANY Housing Committee

Courtesy Jeffrey Rosenfeld, Ph.D.

Senior housing is changing in India, from dormitory-style living (left) to private, hotel-style residences (right).

In studying senior care in Asian countries such as India, China, and Japan, Jeffrey Rosenfeld, Ph.D., director of the Gerontology Program and Gerontology Center at Hofstra University, has found trends that demonstrate both a changing attitude toward the elderly and the influence of Western culture on the East. Internationally, senior centers are transitioning from “old age homes” where widows and widowers are housed when they become a burden on their families, to retreats for elderly couples called “retirement communities.”

The architecture of senior centers demonstrates an existing dual system. In India, for example, seniors are traditionally marginalized if they are unable to live at home. They are grouped with the mentally ill and drug addicts in inexpensive dormitory-style rooms with little privacy. The buildings are designed using typical vernacular construction. The newer centers, however, draw on Western models to influence the design. Rooms are private, with private toilets, and are made with materials that are used in similar centers internationally. Residents are supposed to feel as if they are staying in a hotel or spa. They can interact with the local community and engage with all generations; they are not kept out of sight, out of mind.

In China, the one-child family is transforming aged care. Rosenfeld explained that the mindset of Chinese families is such that daughters are expected to care for their husbands’ aging parents. As a result, half the population is left without care. Also, many young adults move to cities for work leaving their aging families behind. Since people are living longer, there is a demand for more senior housing, and without an existing architectural vocabulary to draw on they are looking to the West for a model. This is a similar issue in Japan. Coupled with a labor shortage, Japan is also experimenting with technology — robotic exoskeletons and care toys — to compensate for inadequate staffing.

Rosenfeld admitted that not much change has been made in architectural models themselves, with a few exceptions. The Architectural Body Research Foundation, founded by Arakawa and Madeline Gins, tries to challenge residents cognitively and sensorally. For example, the Reversible Destiny Lofts are deliberately disorienting. Materials change levels throughout and objects are placed in the middle of circulation spaces. Residents have to actively think to maneuver through the space. Whether or not this model is successful has yet to be seen, said Rosenfeld, but at least it’s innovative.

In the U.S., senior housing is changing in similar ways to Asia. Wid Chapman, senior faculty at Parsons The New School for Design, discussed how the aging population has a desire to interact with local communities, with people of all ages. People want to maintain a continuity with their past, even if they can no longer live on their own. If they are able to live at home, many are choosing to retrofit for accessibility, while others are hiring designers to create universal designs.

This September, the NY Academy of Medicine, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and the NYC Department of Health and Human Services released Age-Friendly NYC, a report on initiatives to improve the city from an aging population’s perspective. NYC is among the best cities for the elderly to live, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), stated Chapman. With accessible outdoor space, proximity to mass transportation, and contact with civic and community events, urban centers like NYC are proving to be high on seniors’ lists of preferred residences. As more studies are released, Chapman believes that urban centers are the next wave of the future for senior care.