The field of aged care design has been undergoing a significant transformation in recent years, driven by shifting demographics and the evolving needs and expectations of seniors. With the findings of the recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety comprehensively highlighting the sector’s tremendous shortcomings, we expect to see even greater changes ahead.
Along with the development of a new Aged Care Act, the Commission has also prompted the establishment of the National Aged Care Design Principles and Guidelines which were released in draft form last month (the final version to come into effect 1 July 2024).
Four Key Principles
Aimed at improving the experience and rights of residents, care staff, and families and friends of this cohort, the Guidelines have identified four overarching principles to drive design excellence of aged care facilities:
Principle 1. Enable the Person: establishing the importance of designing spaces that support the residents’ health, wellbeing, and sense of identity.
Principle 2. Cultivate a Home: creating environments that are familiar and allow for privacy, control, and a feeling of belonging to help ease the transition of seniors from their own home to a communal setting.
Principle 3. Access the Outdoors: valuing a design with clear and accessible connections to nature and the outdoors as a fundamental element of any aged care facility.
Principle 4. Connect with Community: protecting residents’ sense of belonging through the ability to interact with family, friends, and the wider community as paramount to stemming a decline in people’s health and wellbeing.
Transforming these principles into a well-designed, sensitive, and welcoming environment may be achieved through the application of design approaches that are not new to design and architecture but perhaps have not been commonly adopted in the aged care sector.
Person-centred design places the individual at the heart of the design process, focusing on their unique needs, preferences, and lifestyle. On this premise, a fundamental shift in aged care design philosophy is taking place with a decrease in institution-like environments and an increase in more home-like spaces.
A significant aspect of this approach has been the creation of smaller residences clustered around central communal areas. The “small households” concept allows for residents to choose when to enjoy the privacy of their own space and when to opt-in for social interaction.
By providing varied and flexible spaces, aged care facilities acknowledge that seniors are not a homogeneous group; they have diverse backgrounds, interests, and capabilities that should be accommodated; it recognises that living in care facilities does not negate their need for a certain level of independence.
Moreover, the aesthetics of aged care living spaces need to evolve to reflect a more homely and inviting atmosphere, where medical and service equipment is treated discreetly, and where the use of warm colours, comfortable furniture, and familiar residential features prevail. This transformation aims to create a sense of security and belonging for residents.
Sustainable and Nature-Inspired Design
Sustainability and biophilic design principles in aged care design are also set to gain prominence. Widely adopted initially in commercial architecture and then in private residential design, aged care facilities should aim to integrate eco-friendly features such as energy-efficient lighting, green roofs, and water conservation measures. This not only reduces operational costs but also aligns with the values of many older adults who want to leave a positive impact on the planet.
Biophilic design, which incorporates elements of nature into interior and exterior spaces, has proven benefits for mental and physical health. Aged care facilities do well when introducing more greenery, natural light, and outdoor spaces into their designs. Access to gardens, courtyards, and walking paths not only enhances the aesthetic appeal of the facility but also provides therapeutic benefits and encourages physical activity. Green spaces also provide the opportunity to interact with the wider community if those spaces are open to and welcoming of a diverse cohort of visitors whether from the staff and carers of the facility or the general public.
Technology will increasingly play a pivotal role in enhancing the quality of life for seniors in aged care facilities. Innovations such as smart home automation, telemedicine, and wearable health monitoring devices are becoming standard features. These technologies not only improve the safety and security of residents but also promote greater independence and connectivity.
Adopting smart home systems will allow seniors to control lighting, temperature, and security features with ease, an important factor in ensuring residents have a sense of control over their environment.
Telemedicine, which enables on-demand medical consultations, reduces the need for frequent hospital visits, and wearable devices that monitor vital signs can send real-time alerts to caregivers or medical professionals in case of emergencies. These technological advancements empower seniors while ensuring their well-being is closely monitored without being intrusive, eliminating the surveillance aspect of living in care.
Technology is also a valuable tool in maintaining open lines of communication with friends and family of seniors in care. The implementation of apps that provide reports and updates may help provide peace of mind for loved ones who wish to, but cannot, be close to their elders.
An Evolution for Better Aged Care
Design for aged care living is evolving to meet the changing needs and expectations of seniors. The forthcoming Design Principles and Guidelines will reset the baseline of what will constitute acceptable standards of living for all aged care facilities, and with a person-centred design, sustainable, nature-inspired elements, and technology integration part of the process, we can have confidence in the increasing quality of life and care for our aging population. Ultimately, prioritising their comfort, well-being, and autonomy through environments that support this will benefit the entire community.