Insight / 16-Feb-23

Architecture for an ageing population: how can design help to fight loneliness?

Written by Josie Dorling
Architecture for an ageing population: how can design help to fight loneliness?

Along with national trends, Cornwall’s population is ageing. In 2020, a quarter of the population was aged over 65, and this is expected to rise to almost a third of the population by 2036. [1] [2]

Most individuals choose to remain in the comfort of their own homes into later life for as long as possible. However, Age UK reports that more than half of those aged over 75 years old living alone go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour, or family member. [3] This can leave the elderly vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness which can have detrimental effects on health and quality of life, increasing pressure on the care system.

"Loneliness amongst older people is associated with experiencing depression, and older people with a high degree of loneliness are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease."

Age UK

Whilst studying for my master’s degree at The University of Sheffield, I became particularly interested in how design can be used to overcome these challenges presented by our ageing population. My research showed that alongside intergenerational living, there are several architectural interventions that we can adopt when designing communal housing for older people to encourage social interaction and create a sense of community.

Perhaps the most obvious design consideration is the centralised provision of a variety of communal amenity facilities such as a lounge, dining room, activity rooms and landscaped gardens where residents have the chance to interact and engage in group activities. Combining these with commercial spaces such as hairdressing salons or laundrettes which can be opened up to serve the local community allows residents to maintain a sense of normality and break down any sense of isolation.

However, it is also important to integrate shared spaces on a domestic scale. Grouping accommodation into a series of smaller ‘households’ of eight to ten residents centred around a shared lounge and kitchenette not only helps with staff efficiencies but can foster a stronger sense of community, making residents feel more at home and not part of an institution. Orientating these households around a shared courtyard garden can help individuals to feel less isolated through visual connections with the wider resident community.

Care bedrooms forming part of the Polwithen House development arranged into clusters of ten
Secure communal gardens outside the new nursing home proposed at Polwithen House
Extra care housing overlooks a shared courtyard garden at the Polwithen House development

Further opportunities for social interaction can be encouraged by widening circulation spaces such as corridors, shared balcony/deck access and outdoor pathways to accommodate informal seating areas. These invite residents to stop and linger and engage in unplanned conversations with neighbours and staff as they go about their day.

Widened balcony access at Penameyne Court in St Ives accommodates informal seating areas
Widened balcony access at Penameyne Court in St Ives accommodates informal seating areas

As design professionals, we have the opportunity to change current perceptions around growing old and enhance the quality of life of our ageing population by raising the bar when it comes to the design of extra care housing and residential and nursing care homes. Our Later Living and Care team have championed this approach since the practice's inception 50 years ago by integrating the strategies discussed above into practice wherever possible. Notable projects to date include Penameyne Court, a development comprising 27 retirement dwellings in St Ives for Penwith Housing Association,
a 58-bed extra care housing scheme and a 47-bed nursing home at Polwithen House in Penzance and 22 units of extra care accommodation at Meadowbrook in Lostwithiel designed for Cornwallis Care Services.

"Design has a critical role to play in how successfully we will age... We just need more designers to wake up to the potential that is out there, as we head into the century of the centenarian."

Jeremy Myerson, Co-Founder of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design

Meet the Author

Josie Dorling
BArch(Hons)  MArch  PgCert  ARB Josie joined Poynton Bradbury in 2018 having... Read More

BArch(Hons)  MArch  PgCert  ARB

Josie joined Poynton Bradbury in 2018 having graduated with a distinction in her master's degree at the University of Sheffield.  She previously worked in London gaining experience in the private residential, mixed-use, and masterplanning sectors.

Whilst undertaking her thesis project, Josie developed a passion for older people’s housing and care.  Her research into how architects can use design to improve quality of life by avoiding social isolation and loneliness amongst residents informs her approach to practice today within the Later Living and Care team. She also has a strong interest in environmentally sustainable design and plays a key role within the practice’s Sustainability Group, primarily providing support with implementing the practice's committments as signatories to the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge.

Josie qualified as an Architect in 2022 after gaining a distinction in her training at the University of West England, Bristol.

Email Josie

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