How can we adapt our homes to the new lives of seniors?
The proportion of seniors in the population is constantly increasing. This evolution requires adapting existing housing and imagining new, more inclusive ways of building, as in Singapore.
In 2050, the world will have undergone a major demographic transition requiring us to rethink our habitats: by the middle of the 21st century, people aged 60 or more will outnumber young people aged 15 to 24, according to the World Health Organization.
Thanks to life expectancy being extended by medical progress and because of a declining birth rate in many territories, the ageing of the population is accelerating. While the number of people aged 60 and over already exceeds that of children under five, their proportion in the world's population will increase by 34% between 2015 and 2050. This development poses many challenges in terms of health policies, but also in terms of sustainable construction: as senior citizens prefer to remain at home, their homes must evolve to guarantee comfort, safety and accessibility.
The task is immense, as the contemporary housing stock does not meet the objective today. According to the State of Ageing in 2020 report, produced by the London-based Center for Ageing Better, nearly a third of people aged 50 and over consider that their home needs work to make it suitable for their ageing. The cost of renovation is cited as the main obstacle to implementing these essential adaptations.
The Center for Ageing Better lists the four criteria that are necessary to make a home suitable for all profiles, both for comfort and compatibility with possible wheelchair use: the presence of a toilet on the first floor, wide doorways and hallways, a flush threshold (i.e., a flat surface to pass from the outside to the inside) and a means of easy access to any upper floors. Only 9% of homes in England have all four of these features.
The adaptable housing solution
To address the issue of age-related autonomy, making the home more modular is one of the preferred ways to develop. According to sociologist Yankel Fijalkow, co-director of the Centre de recherche sur l'habitat (CRH), "flexible housing, which consists of increasing or reducing the number of rooms in a dwelling according to the stages of life and the comings and goings of the family circle, can respond to these changes.
Pointing out the fact that "many elderly people find themselves in dwellings which, because of their size, are no longer necessarily adapted to their needs", the researcher believes that "adaptable housing can help to take care of these fragile populations to prevent them from feeling cramped".
From their design, the housing should favor versatile materials and equipment that can adapt to the evolution of the occupants: for example, a reversible prefabricated bathroom, or walls that can support heavy loads with the addition of support bars to facilitate mobility.
Among the Center for Ageing Better's recommendations is investing in "renovating existing housing to increase its safety, its connection to digital services and its energy efficiency." The organization recommends integrating the future well-being of senior occupants right from the design phase of real estate programs, even if a couple in their thirties moves in: "new housing must be built for people of all ages who might live there, not just for their first residents." Let’s clarify: it is better to anticipate so as not to be caught off guard once the demographic shift has been reached; this strategy is already being observed in several Asian countries.
In Asia, the example of Singapore
The Asia-Pacific region is also fully engaged in the challenge of demographic transition. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a quarter of its inhabitants will be over 60 years of age in 2050, or no less than 1.3 billion citizens. While the transition will be fairly gradual in Indonesia according to the bank, it predicts a "very rapid" demographic transition in countries such as China, Thailand and Vietnam.
Singapore is the most glaring example of the need for rapid adaptation: the island city-state is the third most densely populated country in the world and 14.4% of its population was 65 and over in 2019. By 2030, this number will go up to 25%, according to the ADB. To meet this challenge, the authorities released €2 billion in 2015 to launch a series of multi-sectoral initiatives to make Singapore "a city fit for the elderly, so that a long life is a blessing rather than a burden to the community, families or the state." In terms of housing, this strategy is notably reflected in the "kampung" spirit claimed by many development projects.
In Malaysian, one of Singapore's official languages, "kampung" means "village". The country thus advocates ageing close to home, with strong neighborhood ties and community support. The Kampung Admiralty building, a mixed-use complex opened in 2017, illustrates this goal. As its lead architect Pearl Chia (WOHA Agency) explains in a report on the Oldissey website, Kampung Admiralty "is probably the first project injecting senior housing at once with health services, convenience stores, medical centers and social activities."
Report on the Kampung Admiralty
This intergenerational space, where the typical resident is 55 years old and owns his or her apartment with a 30-year lease, consists of three distinct levels. On the first floor, a central plaza is open to the public and surrounded by stores and restaurants. The central part is occupied by a medical center, while a nursery and a "club for active seniors", with activities, are located on the 6th and 7th floors. The 104 senior apartments are spread across the two 11-story buildings that overlook the otherwise heavily vegetated "vertical kampung", that won the 2018 World Building of the Year award.
"We designed the building with universal design principles in mind: the spaces are all adapted to the needs of the elderly, with no obstacle," explains architect Pearl Chia, whose approach to this project encapsulates the sense of foresight that prevails in Singapore. "Most of the time, we start helping the elderly when they are already sick or very dependent; here, the project looks at everything that can be done before that."
The progress that is made in sustainable and lightweight construction now allows us to contemplate the future with confidence and serenity. Offering housing that can adapt along with its inhabitants is one of the pillars of an inclusive society.
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