Age-friendly living—how can a building assist its inhabitants?

April 15, 2019

According to the study “Wohnen der Altersgruppe 65plus” (Housing for the over-65s), around three million age-friendly housing units need to be built in Germany within the next eleven years. The study, commissioned by the building materials association Bundesverband Deutscher Baustoff-Fachhandel e. V. and carried out by the Hanover-based Eduard-Pestel-Institut, calculates an investment requirement of around fifty billion euros.

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Accessible living in an age-friendly apartment requires holistic plannning.

A holistic approach to accessibility

Anyone who thinks accessibility means merely “threshold-free” together with a level-access shower in the bathroom falls well short of the mark. Accessibility means not only taking into account mobility problems but also sensory and cognitive impairment.

As an architect and gerontologist, Dr. Ing. Birgit Dietz from the Bayerisches Institut für alters- und demenzsensible Architektur (Bavarian Institute for Age- and Dementia-Sensitive Architecture) can certainly judge what kinds of aids older and impaired people need in their home environment in order to remain independent for as long as possible.

Remaining in their own homes is, after all, the overriding aim of most older people. Even among those who require nursing, more than 70 percent are cared for in their home environment, says the Beratungsstelle Wohnen des Stadtteilarbeit e. V.—a housing advisory organization—in the Munich district of Schwabing.

Visual accentuation makes all the difference

People receive 85 percent of their sensory impressions via their eyes, Birgit Dietz explains. It is not only the ability to perceive colors and contrasts that diminish with age, but also focal depth. Degenerative phenomena such as macula degeneration affect the field of vision of approx. one third of the over-75s.

But in fact quite simple measures can make it much easier for visually impaired seniors to orient themselves in their homes and especially in public buildings (e.g. hospitals): good lighting and high-contrast markings in warm colours, which older people can see better than they can cold colours, help them to find their way around. Edging the wash basin and the toilet in red makes it much easier for older people to locate them accurately.

Planners need to take age-friendly elements into account

If physical impairment is compounded by dementia, sufferers find it increasingly difficult to understand symbols. Blotches of shadow on the floor may be interpreted as holes, for example. Complex fittings and taps in the bathroom raise the risk of scalding. Large, single-lever mixers can prevent this happening.

A combination of dark, non-shiny flooring and good lighting together with stable handles can reduce the risk of falls at critical places—the toilet area being the highest-risk one. The planner thus needs to ensure that walls are stable so that handholds can be securely attached. Another problem that is difficult to fix in retrospect is sufficient room for maneuver, required both for those who use a zimmer frame and potentially later for nursing staff.

A smart home as a health assistant for more independence in old age

Smart homes offer possibilities that go well beyond simply avoiding inconveniences. The University of Kempten is testing prototypes for intelligent assistance technology in a research apartment. This includes such things as fall sensors in the floor, which automatically set off an alarm, or a toilet with armrests, which measures blood pressure, pulse, blood sugar and the level of oxygen in the blood and sends the results directly to the person‘s GP. Voice-controlled heating, lighting, and ventilation make it easier to control the domestic climate from the sofa.

Since the technology is web-based, however, it raises questions about protecting sensitive data and about abuse by third parties. This is a task for professionals, since not all manufacturers pay IT security the attention it deserves. But once such issues have been addressed, the chances of continuing to live autonomously till a very old age are better than they ever were before!

Stephanie von Keudell

Independent journalist