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  • Benny Kuriakose and Aneeta Cici George

Design for the Elderly

Ageing happens to everyone, and as we get older, we experience a wide array of physical, psychological, and socio-economic changes that can be a challenge for some to adapt to. One experiences physical challenges related to mobility, strength, vision and hearing loss, and tactile and thermal sensitivity as we age. Many live alone, disconnected from family, friends, and the wider community. These changes, coupled with retirement and changing social roles, can lead many to experience loneliness and despair as they try to adapt to contemporary social structures and the alienation that sometimes accompanies them. As designers, we have to consider the impact we have on ameliorating the negative aspects of these changes.

How can we, as designers, help provide the elderly with their desire for independence, choice privacy, and intimacy? These are the kinds of questions we asked when we got the opportunity to design India‘s first holistic retirement community of Alive Life Spaces, "The Rainbow". We endeavored to dig deep and understand the changes and challenges that occur as people age. We tried to develop a design that would improve the living conditions of the elderly while taking into account all of their requirements. A design that nurtures the elderly, who are sometimes physically weak, immobile, and vulnerable, and intends to encourage them to interact by involving them in various activities.

We believe that conscious design can definitely enhance their confidence and well-being. We incorporated and utilized certain design principles and strived to create a functional, safe, and convenient space for the elderly that embraced and encouraged the idea that life can be wonderful as a senior.

List of Contents

1. Understanding the Problems Faced by the Elderly

Visual Problems

Changes in perception, cognition, and expression, especially when the intellect is intact, can have a depressing and debilitating psychological effect in old age.

Cognitive Mapping Difficulties

Older people have an increased difficulty in creating new mental images- known as “cognitive maps” - of unfamiliar settings. Their ability to comprehend complex but familiar situations may be superior to that of less complex but new environments.

Psychological Problems

With ageing comes several of these physical issues that might limit one's ability to do things. Many retirees who have spent their entire lives being active may find this new stage to be quite stressful. Most senior citizens want to engage in a wide array of physical activities, but when their bodies refuse to cooperate, it can lead to withdrawal, resentment, and even depression.

Senile Dementia

Patients with dementia are more likely to misinterpret architectural components or visual cues, resulting in needless distress. For instance, poorly differentiated hallways can lead to needless frustration as wayfinding and orientation become difficult and frustrating.

These are some of the reasons why it has become more common for them to be relocated to retirement homes and communities where the necessary care and affection may be available. Despite the great advantages of community living, making the decision to move is a difficult one for many seniors and their families, and there are some big fears that come to mind while making such a decision.

2. The Biggest Fears About Senior Living

The most common concerns among the elderly are:

1. Living in a community means sacrificing privacy, independence, and freedom.

2. Moving away from family implies there will be no one to assist and they will be neglected by them.

3. Moving to a community means not being able to continue their normal activities, routines, and hobbies, such as gardening.

4. Boredom and alienation

5. Financial costs

6. Afraid to place their trust in strangers and losing control over their daily lives and activities.

These concerns are well-founded in some cases as several retirement homes and old age homes may not consider all the above-mentioned criteria and may be insensitive towards them. In such places, they may feel imprisoned, lonely, and suffocated. As a result, it is vital to consider their issues while designing a retirement home or community. They need to be included right from the initial planning stages.

We attempted to address all of these difficulties when constructing the retirement community in Thiruvananthapuram, and we were looking for the best solution for them to live a healthy, safe, and contented life.

3. Design Objectives

The following are some of the objectives we considered when designing “The Rainbow” by Alive Lifespaces, India’s first holistic retirement community in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

  • Improving orientation and comprehension.

  • Encouraging social interaction.

  • Stimulating participation.

  • Reducing conflict and distraction.

  • Providing a safe space.

  • Making activities and services accessible.

  • Changing the public perception of ageing and reducing ageism.

4. Design Approach

The primary goal of a retirement home would be to create an environment that anyone, regardless of age, size, disability, or ability, could use. Furthermore, the thoughtful design might improve their self-esteem and well-being. It should aim to reduce dependency and promote independence among the elderly.

The planning has focused on providing appropriate forms of physical support and behavioral cues necessary to diminish the sense of disorientation and vulnerability. Also, the design of the retirement home is intended to encourage interaction by involving the occupants in activities.

5. Design Criteria and Factors

Each area needs to be thoughtfully considered.

Landscaping & Outdoor Spaces

Residents benefit from well-designed outdoor common areas, which make them feel less alone in the midst of high-rise buildings. A range of activities, ranging from calm chats to games and swimming, can be planned for the outdoors. Landscape design may help to increase sensory stimulation and intrigue.


To ensure safety and convenience, vehicle parks and access roads should be carefully located. It will be advantageous if the landing spot is on level terrain. Considering points like including a lowered kerb to make it simpler for those who use wheelchairs or walking aids will be highly advantageous.


Indoor and outdoor walkways and corridors must be wheelchair accessible. In the corridors, a clear width of 1800 mm allows individuals to stroll alongside one another and two wheelchair users to pass freely. Furthermore, color-coded hallways with numbers make identification easier. Stairs can be dangerous for people who have vision or movement problems. Passenger lifts can be installed next to stairwells to provide an alternate mode of transportation.

Means of providing access for people with wheelchairs and other mobility aids.
Means of providing access for people with wheelchairs and other mobility aids.

Common Facilities

The administrative area can have direct access to common facilities, with views of critical areas of the site. Comfortable seating and free space are necessary to accommodate all kinds of people. Lounges serve as social centers and, therefore, can be placed near points of higher activity. It can house a variety of activities, such as group programs, social activities, chatting, visiting, or watching television. Introducing a common dining area and linking tables can help to increase conversations among inhabitants and keep them from getting depressed.

Recreational Facilities

Residents can be rejuvenated by providing facilities for a range of activities throughout the night and on weekends. In public spaces, social activities such as fine arts, crafts, and music might be organized. Sports, fitness programs, yoga, meditation, and swimming are all examples of physical activities that may be developed to incorporate the entire community.

Various combination of outdoor seating and greenery can be experimented.
Various combination of outdoor seating and greenery can be experimented.

Medical Resources

Medical necessities such as a doctor's office, nursing stations, and palliative care rooms are to be provided in a single structure in a node that is easily accessible from the rest of the site. To create a more homely feeling, the nursing station might be separated from the main hallways.

The Design of Living Quarters

It is preferable to provide different kinds of accommodation based on the differing needs of the residents. The open floor layout at a retirement home, regardless of the style, allows for maximum personalization, making residents feel at home and not out of place. Balconies, sit-outs, and semi-open areas built within dwellings give visual and audio protection while keeping a connection to nature, resulting in a relaxing ambiance.

Interior Design

Flexible furniture arrangements can allow people to modify the space as per their unique preferences. Choose round-edged furniture to avoid injury during falls. The provision of assistance alarms in all rooms within the user’s reach can help in times of emergency. For the same reason, a minimum of four feet of clearance can be maintained between the bed and all other objects and walls. The selection of beds has to be done carefully to facilitate easy transfer for wheelchairs.

Slip resistance must always be retained irrespective of whether the floor is wet or dry. Floor finishes need to be firm, even, securely fixed, and non-directional. Wall and ceiling finishes need to be thoroughly evaluated alongside floor finishes to optimize the visual, acoustic, and aesthetic qualities of an environment. This is especially important for those with hearing challenges and those with cognitive, mental health, or visual difficulties. Lighting needs to be carefully designed to aid the perception of space, colour, and texture. In addition to natural light, the installation of adjustable artificial lighting that is easy to control and provides good colour rendering is necessary as a majority of the elderly population have problems with their eyesight.

The inclusion of a toilet in each bedroom fosters privacy and hygiene while also making them feel more at home than in an assisted living facility. The provision of clear space on both sides of the door is essential for ease of movement. The toilets can be provided with an outward opening door to make it easy for people in wheelchairs and other mobility issues.

Wayfinding, Colours, and Signage

With age, one's vision deteriorates. Signage may give visual and tactile information to assist all individuals, regardless of their obstacles (physical or psychological). As a result, bigger fonts, greater contrast colours, and stronger lighting levels will need to be addressed in the design. Signs should be placed at wheelchair eye level (48 to 52 inches from the ground) so that they may be seen easily from both a standing and sitting posture.