Jami Mohlenkamp and David Schafer
Jami Mohlenkamp, left, and David Schafer.

When designing communities for older adults, creating spaces that foster safety, comfort and care often are at the top of the list of priorities.

Now more than ever, however, owners and developers of older adult communities are making spaces where residents can enjoy a sense of community and pursue personal interests part of the overall plan. This can take many forms, from fitness rooms and yoga studios, to art studios, hands-on kitchens, greenhouses and other spaces for pursuing various types of learning.

At first, it seems unlikely that there would be any overlap between architectural design for older adult communities and higher education. Design strategies for both types of building environments, however, are evolving along similar lines. Those practice areas are not as dissimilar as we may think.

There are a few reasons for this. The move toward lifelong learning is a trend in higher education that supports a much greater age diversity in the student population. Inclusivity is another parallel, in that universal design is an important part of both older adult and campus space design, intended to support everyone, regardless of their physical limitations. 

Flexibility is another shared goal for education and senior living architects and designers. Increased flexibility allows instructors to deliver instructional content outside the classroom — usually online — using the time spent in the classroom for more active, collaborative work guided and supported by the instructor.

The same might be said of older adult design, where universal design elements are elevating not only the function, but the look and feel of communities intended as residences for older adults. Those communities are changing, not only to accommodate different acuity levels, such as independent living, assisted living and memory care environments, but also as a way of introducing spaces intended to foster socialization, activities and lifelong learning.

With this in mind, OZ Architecture decided to explore the opportunities for intersection between older adult design and education design. Although this topic warrants continued exploration, we’ve identified three primary themes that represent overlapping design values of student populations and older adult communities: designing for communities, bridging differences and fostering lifelong learning.

Designing for community

One of the reasons for combining design thinking from education and older adult communities is to combat loneliness and foster community. A 2016 New York Times article cited loneliness as a “growing epidemic,” drawing on evidence that being lonely can disturb sleep, cause abnormal immune responses and even trigger cognitive decline. Another study followed more than three million people and suggested that loneliness peaks first in teenagers and young adults, and then again in the oldest individuals. Young people and old people are more alike than we think — and, unfortunately, they’re both at risk of feeling isolated.

By creating spaces that encourage community, we can support the users of our spaces. Student persistence and success rates are greatest for students who have a sense of belonging and are part of a larger community. Similarly, a sense of community and belonging can have a profound effect on the health and quality of life of an older adult.

To support the creation of community, it is important to capitalize on common spaces such as stairways, elevator lobbies and even corridors, designing them to encourage chance encounters and promote interaction.

Another strategy is to design the common destination amenities such as laundry rooms, common kitchens and game rooms to attract and encourage community engagement. Indoors, this might look like visible, common student study areas in a residence hall, or similar common areas in older adult communities for reading the morning paper or drinking a cup of coffee and being seen by a neighbor. If thoughtfully crafted, the outdoor space between buildings also can create valuable space that supports the community. 

Designing those types of flexible community spaces encourages gathering together, no matter the age, and could feasibly work for multiple age groups in a single space — such as an older adult community with public space open to nearby college students, or a college with a Zen garden with time for quiet reflection and community events such as tai chi or group meditation.

Bridging differences

At certain ages, it can be difficult to connect outside of one’s age group. In an education setting and in older adult communities, we often are surrounded by others of a similar age. With a lack of direct connection to others of different ages, it is possible for stigmas and opinions to be created.

Design can work to build bridges across different user groups and generations by creating spaces everyone can use, regardless of age or ability. For example, education design is moving toward a more student-collaborative pedagogy in favor of lecture-style learning. This is represented by a move toward level-floor classrooms with movable furniture, partitions and dry erase boards or digital screens for flexibility and ease of collaboration in the learning environment.

As a result, many newer spaces easily allow someone in a wheelchair to roll up next to someone in a traditional seat and work together around the same workspace. This flexibility and usability makes the environment significantly more navigable by someone with physical or mobility challenges, regardless of age.

Thoughtful housing options also can foster integration. In some cases, designing older adult housing adjacent to student housing on campus, with shared amenities between, could allow people of different ages to intermingle at their discretion and in different environments.

As another example, student housing intended for specific areas of study, such as nursing or gerontology, could be attached to older adult housing as a way for students to interact daily with residents in a non-learning environment. Designated spaces in older adult housing design, such as exam rooms, can bring these groups into the same space without sacrificing privacy.

This works especially well if common “everyday” spaces can be programmed to be both learning spaces and community spaces. For example, the same space might be designed in a way that it can hold a knitting class in the morning and a wine tasting mixer in the afternoon, with participant overlap encouraged.

Promoting lifelong learning

The motivation to learn new things thrives across generations. Many older adults are driven to return to an educational setting later in life, to get that degree they’ve been wanting or simply learn to a new skill. Universities and colleges also are adapting noncredit classes and audit programs for lifelong learners to engage while minimizing or eliminating homework and exams. This encourages older adults to truly immerse themselves in lifelong learning.

Designing integrated, mixed-use buildings also could create learning opportunities, such as including a public library in a 55+ community. Designing a college’s maker space near an older adult community might allow retired professionals to tutor students and impart trade or craft knowledge. Younger students might even adapt their social skills by teaching older adults about updates to technology. Those interactions even may open doors for older adults and young students to work side-by-side on new products or technologies for aging populations.

We’re reminded of Henry Ford’s words: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Humans do well when we keep learning, no matter our age. By shifting our own thinking as to which types of spaces belong to which age groups, we can bridge generations in meaningful ways and with meaningful, intentional spaces.

Jami Mohlenkamp and Dave Schafer are principals at Denver-based OZ Architecture. Mohlenkamp leads the firm’s senior living practice area, and Schafer oversees the company’s education practice area. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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