Like most people, designers rarely think about ageing or getting old.
A new exhibition at APDL – entitled Living in Aged Care: A photographic exhibition of laughter, loss and leisure – addresses this knowledge gap by proving unique insight into the day-to-day lives, experiences and expectations of older Brisbane residents living in one Brisbane aged care facility.
Funded by the Australian Research Council and BallyCara, the research explored how over one hundred people viewed ageing in aged care —residents (retirement village, residential aged care, nursing home, dementia and respite), their family and friends, and the aged care workforce (from nurses and carers through to cooks and administrators).
This exhibition, which shares residents’ photographs and poems, provides rare and intimate insight into the often-private world of aged care. As well as highlighting cherished interactions and activities with friends, family and staff [laughter and leisure], the photographs poignantly capture the changes, challenges and resilience of older age – the increasing awareness of life’s fragility and resident’s experience of illness, dying and grief [loss].
For designers, the exhibition serves as a powerful reminder that good design starts with a deep understanding of the user experience. Despite growing awareness and engagement with concepts such as design for dementia, universal, inclusive and age-friendly design, designers are only just beginning to focus on the ageing demographic. Yet, as this exhibition reminds us, older people are a growing proportion of the population and will transform the design of products, homes, services and cities.
Critically, innovative design can significantly improve older peoples’ quality of life, independence and mobility. For example, architects and interior designers are making residential housing more flexible and adaptable, exploring the potential of densification, ‘granny’ flats and multi-generation housing. Dementia-friendly design emphasises the importance of simplicity and familiarity, wayfinding and engaging our senses (colour, touch, texture, smell, sound), while aged care design is increasingly more personalised and less institutional, with a focus on liveability and imbedding technology.
For product, industrial, fashion and interactive designers, there is a growing market for ‘smart’ products and clothes (‘wearables’) that track blood pressure, physical movement, vital signs, offer impact protection from fall, shoes that emit light or clothing that just makes getting dressed easier for older people with arthritis or dementia. Similarly, landscape architects and urban planners are creating attractive public spaces that welcome and support older people. From access and social inclusion, well-lit and wide footpaths, signage and street furniture, to slowing traffic and prioritising walkability, these design decisions affect whether older people can use our public spaces.
As well as providing nuanced and often emotive insight into the lived experience of aged care, the exhibition sets forth a clear design problem, brief and challenge for all designers, asking: how can design enhance the ageing experience?