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Future-Proofing Our City For Senior Living

Experts address the myths and truths about getting old and highlight the importance of inviting user participation for optimally designed senior care spaces at the recent Design Conversations panel discussion, held as part of Singapore Indesign 2016.

Future-Proofing Our City For Senior Living

Dealing with and designing for the ageing population is hardly a new challenge. But more often than not, even in countries where the elderly comprise a substantial part of the demographic, the issues that are pertinent to the care and wellbeing of seniors are often swept under the rug, while the resulting design solutions for elderly care are frequently approached in a clinical manner.

Held as part of the recent Singapore Indesign 2016 event on Saturday 8 October, the Design Conversations panel discussion LiveLife: Future-Proofing our City for Senior Living saw a group of industry experts come together to discuss the creation of age sensitive environments. The speakers included Kang Fong Ing, a partner at COLOURS: Collectively Ours consultancy for collaborative design and placemaking; Dr Chong Keng Hua, Assistant Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Design at SUTD and leader of SUTD’s Social Urban Research Groupe (SURGe); and Joshua Comaroff, design consultant at Lekker Architects.

“There is a lot of social stigma when it comes to elderly care,” said Kang Fong Ing at the start of the discussion. “When people get older and older and their health begins to deteriorate, we start to shy away from addressing these issues openly.”

As part of the discussion, the idea of a more participatory process, where the elderly could have a chance to provide input about the spaces that are being designed for them, came up as an effective way for designers to become more in tune with the needs of the aged. Dr. Chong urged designers to let go of existing assumptions about the elderly and relinquish some of the control over the design process, instead, learning from the users and designing together with them for optimal results. The aspect of learning from the elderly stood out as essential in eliciting informed design responses when attempting to create age sensitive environments. As Comaroff highlighted, “When we talk about seniors, we are talking about an entirely diverse group of people. We have to [create] spaces that allow for different types of activities.”

Bringing up the typology of senior care and senior community centres, Comaroff also called for a re-examination of the disability centred, medical model of caring for the elderly that is seen as the prevalent institutional model. Comaroff highlighted the value in finding ways to domesticate and bring back social and domestic rituals into senior care spaces, much like he and his partner Ong Ker-Shing did for the APEX Harmony Lodge project, to provide comfort and ways to keep the elderly users active and engaged intellectually.

All three speakers spoke of mental, physical and social engagement with surrounding spaces and the larger community as crucial in the design of the elderly care spaces of the future. Warning of the negative aspects of overdesigning spaces, the discussion highlighted environments that could be empowering if they elicited a sense of awareness of the surroundings to keep their users more aware, mobile and agile for a more fulfilling life. “A certain amount of calculated, tolerated risk is important to keep people alert, active and strong,” elaborated Comaroff, with Dr. Chong advocating for spaces that discouraged idle passiveness through design.

“Many seniors feel that they cannot contribute much and that they are not challenged much. In truth, growing old still means growing and learning. How can we, as designers, keep the ageing population challenged and mentally alert?” inquired Chong.

The subject of coming to terms with morality and dealing with death, in many ways, summarised the discussion and highlighted the persistent social stigma associated with the latter stages of growing old. Comaroff lamented the out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality that overshadows the process of passing on and said that the process of coming to terms with the end of life was an integral part of a larger social infrastructure that could not be ignored.

“The way to start openly talking about these difficult moments of transition is to talk about death as a social eco-system,” emphasised Comaroff at the conclusion of the discussion. “Eventually you will have to take care of the person who is currently taking care of someone who is dying. We need to think of death and getting older as part of the larger process and embrace the cycle of life. Only then can we bring more attention to design in this sector.”

Design Conversations panel discussion images by Angie Ng; other images courtesy of COLOURS: Collectively Ours

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