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Tips on how to design to provoke all of the senses


Aveo’s Retirement Village in Durack includes a communal kitchen where residents can participate in cooking classes or cook their meals together. Image: Alicia Taylor

Architects and designers can empower seniors and aged care residents through designing for the senses beyond the traditional five, such the senses of direction, balance and familiarity, writes Rulla Asmar.

The pressure to meet the demand for high quality accommodation and care for seniors is continuously increasing.

For many years, aged care has focused on the care aspect. It’s been about the systems and processes associated with providing care to residents.

Today, aged care is all about the resident. How does the resident feel? How do we ensure they feel like they’re in their own home and not in an institution?

As designers, we need to provide support for personalised care and create places for meaningful experiences – where care can be delivered and a fulfilling life lived.

At ThomsonAdsett, we have found three factors are key to designing the future of aged care:

  1. Designing for all senses
  2. Creating community
  3. Designing a home

Designing for all senses

As children we are taught that the human body has five senses.

Today, neuroscientists argue that we have anywhere between 21 and 33 senses. These include senses of direction, balance, familiarity, and temperature.

This means that it is not just about how a space looks, but how each element works together to create an engaging environment for every individual.

This often involves designing to create associations. We ask ourselves – how can we use one or more of the senses, such as a sense of familiarity, to spark a positive association of home in residents.

Creating a story line and a narrative for our residents through different sensory experiences is critical when designing interiors for seniors.

Our project at Jeta Gardens uses tactile elements such as screens to provoke various senses in its residents. We were also conscious of the interaction between indoor and outdoor space to awaken visitors and residents’ sense of direction and smell, for example. The project creates cultural associations through the use of colour and decorative features.

Interiors should create opportunities for living. It is the opposite of being anaesthetised. Interiors ignite positive emotions by creating mental associations to objects, smells or sounds, amongst others.

Creating community

We now understand social connectivity and networks to be crucial factors in our happiness and wellbeing. Research shows that the more people are connected to their community network, the better they do as they age.

When people have access to their local doctor and families, they benefit much more from a greater quality of life, especially in their last 25 years of living. So with this in mind, architects increasingly need to design spaces that support a model of care that is more intimate and mimics a close-knit community.

Our St Paul’s Residential Aged Care project in Bardon, for example, includes a new internal public piazza, which provides an active communal zone for residents to enjoy.

Another way to successfully achieve a sense of community is to activate the ground floor of multi-storey aged care buildings. This can be achieved with cafes and shops for example. Positioning commercial spaces within an aged care complex allows residents to feel like part of a community, while remaining in a safe environment.

Designing a home

Giving people the feeling of being comfortable within a homelike space is heavily linked to improving the mental and physical health of the elderly. Our clients often seek to inject a homely style into a large aged care building.

However, depending on the market focus of their business, a typical aged care building is much larger than a home and so we introduce familiar elements into spaces through interior design.

To achieve this sense of home, we consider the opportunities for living, which refers to creating a specific energy in a space and how we want people to feel and move through the building.

We design to instil emotions of comfort and calm while creating spaces for social interaction – similar to a living space you would find in a home.

For example, our recent project for Aveo Durack uses intimate communal spaces to create a sense of home. These small living and dining areas encourage residents to participate in group activities such as cooking demonstrations. This also instills a sense of community among residents.

Most importantly, we consider who our residents are, what they expect and how we can enhance their life through our design.

We constantly remind ourselves that one size does not fit all and different people will have different perception of spaces. When designing aged care homes, we therefore need to account for various levels of engagement and personal choice.

Rulla Asmar is a project leader at ThomsonAdsett, an architecture and design firm with studios throughout Australia and Asia. This article draws on her presentation titled The Feeling of Space at this year’s Leading Age Services Australia National Congress.

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