Ahead of the upcoming RVA conference in Sydney, DAN McNELIS and his team at Klein, Architects took some time to consider some of the main factors affecting the aged residential sector, from a design-focused point of view.

Selwyn Heights Retirement Village

We believe there are both issues and opportunities that are really important to be discussed which arise from our current projects and research, international precedents, and through a few predictions we have for the future of the sector.

The subject of the growing aged population is one that raises cause for both interest and concern. Globally the percentages of national populations over the age of 65, and the projections of the near future, have led many to describe the subject of aging as one of the most pressing issues of our time. Humans are living longer, and in greater numbers, with Japan currently in the lead with their aged population having the highest life expectancy in the world. The Japanese can perhaps provide a view into a possible future of the world’s developed nations; where, for example, in 2014 the sales of incontinence pads exceeded that of babies’ nappies.

The Ministry of Social Development is emphatic that this trend is not an anomaly, but rather the new normal that will shape the future of our population. Population ageing is not caused simply by the rise baby boomers, but predominantly by a steady transitioning trend of lower birth rates and lower death rates overall. Under current projections 22% of our population will be 65-plus in 2036, rising to 25% by 2056.

So with approximately 1.14 million people in NZ aged 65 years and over by this time (an increase of 166% over the base 1996 population) what kind of infrastructure and planning are we putting into place to care for our shared future? This question presents a unique challenge for designers of the built environment, as we struggle not only to deal with a growing urban population, but also maintain accessibility in the urban environment, while seeking to enhance the quality of life for its inhabitants.

All of our projects have a big focus on Wellness, a key consideration we define as a combination of Health, Sustainability, Happiness and Purpose. With an extended life expectancy the quality of this portion of our lives is more important than ever. Good health tops the polls among the most important factors for aging New Zealanders which is enhanced by a variety of factors, including; nutrition, exercise, and social connection. Through our design work and research, we look to enhance wellness through design interventions like active design, biophillia, promotion of renewable energy and natural systems, and the specification of healthy, non-toxic materials in our buildings.

We believe future developments should be designed with these principals of wellness at the forefront. Wherever possible we should be producing sustainable projects, of high density, that are inclusive and accessible to all, that offer opportunities for active residents, social interaction, a connection to nature, and have our health and wellbeing at their core.

As the New Zealand housing shortage continues to worsen, and the government looks to promote more medium density development; particularly through legislation such as the new Auckland Unitary Plan, there can be no doubt of the huge impact retirement and aged residential developments can make in this area. In truth, some of the best examples of medium and high density development in New Zealand already come from the aged sector, where the inclusion of high quality amenities, communal spaces, and community outreach can lead this form of development.

So how do we act on this potential? Perhaps, by widening the demographic of residents. If new developments and designs can adjust to appeal to younger residents, the aged residential sector can benefit through an increased market which in turn releases existing housing stock to the rest of the population. Win-win, right? The catch is making the appeal strong enough to these younger residents; AKA the baby boomers. This group, the youngest members now entering their 50’s, are notoriously demanding with high standards and expectations. As designers and providers we must adjust our thinking to create environments that embrace such a demographic shift. Moving away from some of the ideas of the traditional retirement village, we’re now looking at how we can create more inclusive, open places for people to live younger, for longer, with the ultimate aim to create a vibrant community, where residents choose to move to, long before they need to.

Our research, and early project work in this area has grown our understanding of the components needed to be taken into consideration for a successful project. When you think about it, it’s quite simple: placing older adults at the centre of a thriving community, not only improves their quality of life through opportunities for social interaction, but also allows this demographic group to maintain active lives and productive roles in in those communities, which in turn further enhances that environment for all. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

In the near future we predict further opportunities will arise in partnership with other sectors and organisation, both private and public.

The integration of healthcare providers within mixed use aged residential developments is becoming more commonplace. Integrated services which are open to the wider community, i.e. all ages, will become more prevalent as the required shift to increased primary care and community based services continues.

As our lifespans are extended, for many of us, so too will our working lives. The Ministry of Social Development predicts that in the year 2051, 29 per cent of people over 65 will still be in paid employment. The value of experience and gained wisdom is also not to be under estimated. Let’s not forget the current POTUS is in his seventies, this actually may not be the best example.

Aged residential developments may move toward live/work type units for home workshops and offices, or even integrated workplaces close to home. At the very least integrated public or shared methods of transport for aged commuters should be a driving force the aged workforce of the near future.

Many aged adults explore new careers later in life, we are already beginning to see a wave of aged internships and opportunities for continuing education. Currently in the United States you can attend one of the 23 state universities in California for free, regardless of income, through their Over 60 Program. This could very well be something we see introduced close to home too. Considering this in relation to co-location of future developments on or near campus’ could well be a USP for your next building

It is our aim that our special interest, and many of the concepts and design principles developed in our aged residential projects will go on to inform our work beyond this specific sector. If we are to live in an increasingly aged society then all of our public, retail and commercial buildings and workplaces need to adapt to cater for the future users, which of course will be many of us. It is essential that we now begin to adopt principles of universal design and social inclusion in our current projects, so that in the future we are able to live in the kind of urban communities that we would choose for ourselves.

We look forward to exploring these conversations further with our fellow conference delegates.

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