Spaces for seniors can challenge ageist stereotypes when we co-design for intergenerational connection, writes James Kelly.
Public discussions about innovation rarely include seniors. We challenged that at New/Old: Designing to Defy Ageism, a panel discussion last September featuring leaders from aged care, seniors design, research and advocacy, held at the Melbourne University-led innovation precinct Melbourne Connect.
Recognising our unconscious biases about ageing and focusing on the positives and opportunities that come with age emerged as central themes.
Moderator David Wright-Howie, policy researcher at Council on the Ageing Australia, ensured we centred on the priorities of his constituents. Together with my co-panellists Professor Pazit Levinger, principal researcher and exercise physiologist at the National Ageing Research Institute; Natasha Wilkinson, chief executive officer of Donwood Community Aged Care; and Dr Kaele Stokes, executive director of advocacy and research at Dementia Australia, we explored ways to challenge ageism and rethink spatial design to better support inclusivity, agency and connection.
Mr Wright-Howie highlighted the untapped potential of Australia’s seniors. “Yes, the Australian population is ageing, but unlike some commentators and economists, I see as many opportunities in that as there are challenges,” he said. “There’s increasing awareness both in government and the sector that services should be planned and developed with, not just for, older people, and that their lived experience really matters to achieve the best outcome.”
Dr Stokes described misunderstandings about dementia and the isolation this can lead to for many of the nearly 500,000 Australians living with the condition. “Often people with dementia aren’t asked what they want or what they think because there’s an assumption they don’t have the capacity to be able to engage,” she said.
“That’s absolutely not the case. We have a vibrant community of dementia advocates around the country, people living with dementia who participate in all sorts of activities for our organisation as advocates for systemic change. They have opinions, ideas and inspiration we can all draw from. I think that’s a key cultural change that as a community we need to make.
“It’s something we need to think about when we’re designing spaces, communities, policies and programs too. Given that in residential care more than two-thirds of people are living with moderate-to severe cognitive impairment and … about 70 per cent of people living with dementia are out in the community, they can’t just be corralled off into a separate sphere. They’re part of our communities.”
Ms Wilkinson said many of the 75,000 Victorians living in residential aged care are also often forgotten or underestimated. “But the aged care industry is definitely changing and seeing these opportunities,” she said.
“Many aged care homes will have integration with preschools, secondary schools, will bring residents out to other communities like universities … to have talks. That brings so much purpose and experience out into our workforce, our younger generations … from a group of people who have time, purpose and experience, and still want to give to their community. It’s about giving them the opportunity.”
In Professor Levinger’s work creating exercise facilities for seniors that help them maintain their health, wellbeing and social connections, peer-to-peer advocacy is central to success. “When there’s a choice, an older champion has more impact than a younger trainer because people can relate to them,” she explained.
“Having that engagement … getting them involved in decisions … they have so much wisdom and a lot of experience, which should be encouraged and listened to.”
As a designer whose practice specialises in collaborative community design, I concede that while great examples of intergenerational living are common in Europe and elsewhere, they’re still emerging in Australia.
We’ve found that when we listen deeply and regularly to seniors and co-design with them, we can create far more interesting, adaptable, diverse communities that better support resident choice and increase their sense of agency within the spaces they inhabit.
James Kelly is a partner at ClarkeHopkinsClarke Architects and leader of its Seniors Living & Care team