Ready for Ageing?

4 April 2014

Brooke Mead


Are we ready for Ageing? This critical question is posed by a recent House of Lords report from the Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change. They conclude that, of course, we are not at all ready and that all those agencies  writing policy and providing services for society need to grasp the significant challenges that lie ahead. Of all the demographic shifts projected to take place in the next 50 years, the growth in the ageing population is one of the most significant both in scale and speed.

It is heartening to see that the RIBA Futures think-tank has started to answer the challenge to Architects and developers in their report ‘Silver Linings – The Active Third age and the city’. This captures the other side of the challenge by acknowledging that living for longer is something to be celebrated.

Key projections about ageing include:

  • 51% more people aged 65 and over in England in 2030 compared to 2010.
  • 101% more people aged over 85 in 2030 compared to 2010.
  • Over 80% more people more people aged 65 and over with dementia in England and Wales by 2030 compared to 2010.

Over a 50 year period ( 2 generations ) the population over 65 will double & the population over 85 will quadruple.

The very term “old age” needs to be reconsidered and freed from the caricatured view these words often evoke. More subtly, men and women's experience of old age is profoundly different.  When we talk about older people we are talking about older women.  Over the age of 85 there are 2.5 times the number of women than men.  Over the age of 90 there are 3 times as many.

The saying now goes “60 is the new 40” because older people generally enjoy much better health and this important shift in perception could have an impact right across the board. We could re-imagine how we spend our time – recreation or working, as well as reimagining the design of the built environment, public realm, communities, general and specialist housing and how they overlap with healthcare.

The Architectural Challenge

There are some key characteristics which will affect the accommodation we design:

  • many people will want or need to work for longer, often in a more flexible work pattern so an wider range of housing types will have a ‘live/work’ element to them.  We will see the sort of transformation of flexible working patterns now associated with new parents.
  • changing patterns of health care - less institutionalised, more in the home, more bespoke
  • housing with linked support to sustain independent living forolder people.  What design moves make housing more capable of independence?
  • living independently and well. What are the design qualities of housing which enable a high quality of living ?

Certain trends are emerging from the statistical analysis of our population which give us a picture of our neighbourhoods or communities as the nation ages.

  • There will be many more women either widowed, or frail.
  • There are twice as many unpaid carers than employees compared to paid staff in the health and social welfare combined.
  • Care for the elderly has always relied on volunteers, families and communities and this dependence on unpaid carers will increasingly be for care of the younger old ( 65-75 ).
  • It will be important to maintain mixed communities, which people can downsize within, so a mix of housing types is required.
  • Older age should be seen as a spectrum - involving a smooth transition through stages of life given that age is no longer an accurate predictor of health, wealth, employment or activity.

Homes are going to be seen as ever more important hubs for care and support, for emotional, psychological and physical well being. A longer life means that more long term conditions need to be managed in the home.

Homes and communities are also places of ongoing activity.  In the RIBA Futures report ‘Silver Linings’ a representative sample study of 46-65 year olds, when asked about their aspirations for later life, said:

  • over half plan to travel more
  • 30 % plan to learn a new life skill
  • 30 % want to be involved in work, but on their own terms
  • 6% want to embark on a new business venture

These are all activities which promote a sense of wellbeing so our homes and neighbourhoods need to be primed to physically support them.

A new building typology?

It seems to me that a delightful  version of ‘Life-time homes’ needs to be developed, which not only safeguards against us physically being able to occupy our homes, but has embedded within it the things that bring more delight to a slower daily pace of life.

  • Designing for / with the seasons
  • Relationship between indoors and outdoors – in an urban setting
  • Working with the senses
  • Dealing with isolation – enabling people to live together and apart
  • Personalisation of spaces within each home, and ownership of spaces that are related to communal areas, or circulation – what makes them work?

With more carers coming in to our homes maybe the approach to progressive privacy could become more exaggerated, with an emphasis on the thresholds from the front door, to the bedroom or study.

The new mansion blocks can provide a model of supported living. There is the scope for privacy in individual dwellings, but in close proximity to amenities, joined up with public foyers, cafe hubs, internal landscape spaces which link to external roof top terraces. The street and terrace house typology is shifted, the street becomes internal and there is a series of front doors, a central one shared by visitors and residents , and various increasingly private thresholds.  The inbetween environments become secure, and environmentally stable. There is the capacity for the community to be mixed, family homes can sit alongside bedsits. The community is invited in to this central space which might become a high street for social transactions alongside retail transactions.

The scale of these buildings enables a large amount of ‘horizontal living’ with little need for stairs to get from kitchen to bedroom. They can also occupy city blocks and engage with urban life and cultural activity.

In collaboration with Kaethe-Burt-O’Dea we have begun to explore the importance of the relationship to the seasons. Seasonal change can bring huge delight to a slower pace of life, and therefore housing which brings pockets of private landscape into the private realm as well as a longer view of a wider shared garden or landscape. Planting can stimulate the senses, with smell, colour and fragrance, and provide food with associated activities, growing, cooking and eating. Seasonal change in internal decor has become increasingly fashionable, but changing soft furnishings in line with seasonal change like a building having a summer and winter wardrobe.

Rachel Sayers