Homes designed to be elder-friendly



The art of creating spaces that seniors find practical, comfortable, and certainly not patronising.

Rangachary is 79 and his wife, 74. They live with their son and his family in a flat. Every weekend, the grandchildren want to spend time at the malls, shop and watch movies, but the old couple rarely accompanies them. They prefer to spend time at home, or, if they do go out, visit the nearby temple. Everyone assumed that this was because of a renewed interest in religion and spirituality that supposedly comes with old age.

But the truth is far more practical in nature. Malls and multiplexes are not designed to be friendly to the greying population. They cater to the youth, and are rarely built to be accessible to the old.

Design blunders

The floors are large and covered with shiny vitrified tiles that can be treacherous when wet. Escalators are found easily, but most old people are uncomfortable using them; lifts are usually small and well-hidden. There's nothing for an old person to hold on to if support is needed, and there's very little space to sit when they want to rest. Now compare this to any average-sized temple — pitted stone floors make it easy to walk, rows of pillars and niches offer support and plenty of platforms and raised steps make for comfortable seating. It's natural that the elderly prefer this.

While changing designs in malls and public spaces requires a change in society's attitude, there's nothing to stop homes from being designed thoughtfully. Modern designers rarely take the aged into account when designing homes; in the interest of aesthetics, they create several different levels on one floor. If the floor colour remains the same, the level demarcations are difficult to see. It's an accident waiting to happen. Other designers go for bold changes in floor colour and patterns even when the floor is flat (with no levels). Elderly people end up assuming there's a step and prepare for that. The shock of finding no step when you're expecting one can be very unpleasant.

It's not difficult to build an elder-friendly home without compromising on aesthetics. When a client asks us to design spaces, especially private homes, we deliberately make the design as accessible as possible even if there are no old people at that point. Often, people believe that making a house elder friendly means creating a replica of a hospital ward. But the point of thoughtful design is to make a house safe while not compromising on appearances. Making a house obviously elder friendly (and hospital-like) is also a sure way of making an old person feel uncomfortable. Most of them do not want to be patronised and compromise on the independence they have enjoyed for 70-plus years. To successfully make a home elder- friendly, one has to be a combination of psychologist and architect!

Smart design is vital to avoid patronising the elderly. All requirements must be incorporated into the design without making its presence obvious.


For instance, a well-designed planter doubles as much-needed support if there's a long path from the gate to the entrance of the house. Rough tiles interspersed with shining ones in interesting patterns can make a comfortable pathway. A decorative, low shoe cupboard can also serve as a seat at your home's entrance. A fence post projecting from the wall of a toilet is an efficient substitute for a readymade handgrip, while actually forming a part of the tiling.

Anti-skid tiles are vital in bathrooms, as are handgrips and seating platforms. Lighting is also important. Needless to say, well-lit spaces minimise injury due to mishaps with furniture. Night lights and guides, used judiciously to avoid glare, are useful during midnight sojourns.

These are just some of the elements we use while creating elder-friendly spaces; many more can be added depending on specific needs. Dwarf walls, niches, trellis work — the list is endless. They can be used as handrails, as seats or as direction guides. Most of these features don't cost much more than conventional designs. With a bit of creativity, the clinical aspects of functionality can be camouflaged as interesting design details.

The writers are Leed Accredited Professionals, heading APRObuild Architects in Chennai.

Published on June 02, 2011
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