Designing for quality of life for the elderly

Throughout her PhD, Victoria University of Wellington student Yukiko Kuboshima has completed extensive research into housing design for the elderly. So far, her research shows a severe lack of suitable housing for New Zealand’s ageing population.

Yukiko Kuboshima

“The elderly have both physical and social needs that are not being met by their current housing options, and in some cases the housing available is actively detrimental to their quality of life,” Yukiko says. “In order to provide adequate housing for the elderly in New Zealand, significant changes need to be made.”

Yukiko says her research shows housing for the elderly fails to meet a number of key needs like independence, privacy, space for personal relationships, and individuality. Her research has looked into solutions for these issues, looking into design of rental properties, bathrooms, and housing design for stroke patients, amongst other areas.

Generally, Yukiko’s research shows that a downsized private home, ideally in a neighbourhood where the elderly person has already lived, is the best housing option in terms of both cost and quality of life.

“Staying in a full size home is expensive, because these homes require extensive renovation to make them suitable for the elderly,” Yukiko says. “Larger homes are also harder for elderly people to maintain, leading to a loss of control over their environment. But residential care is also not an option for many—it is expensive, and it can also reduce quality of life due to lack of privacy and autonomy. My research for stroke patients also showed that being in their own home is the best option for their care.”

Rental housing is an option for the elderly, and will need to become more readily available as home ownership levels drop, Yukiko says. However, after surveying a group of elderly living in rental housing, Yukiko says there are still some design changes that need to be made.

“Rental housing is a good option, but there needs to be special considerations made in the design of this housing to make it financially, socially, and physically suitable for the elderly,” Yukiko says. “Design strategies should look carefully at use of space and elevation – houses should meet the needs of elderly without being too big, for example, because this would make renting costs too high.”

Some other design elements important to housing for the elderly are the inclusion of at least one bedroom, for privacy, easy access to the outdoors to support mental health, and enough space to host approximately ten guests for an active social life, Yukiko says. Housing design should also consider ease of access, including completely level floors, easy access between rooms (particularly in and out of the kitchen), and storage space at an appropriate height. In her research into stroke patients, Yukiko also found that space to sit in each room was important for maintaining their independence and aiding in recovery.

A particular area of focus for housing design for the elderly should be the bathroom, Yukiko says.

“A common bathroom model for the elderly is the wide flat ‘wet room’ style,” Yukiko says. “Ideally, bathrooms should have enough space for two people, provide as much privacy as possible, and should contain water flow for safety and to keep personal items dry, but unfortunately the ‘wet room’ style bathrooms do not meet these needs.”

Although there is some investment required to create suitable housing for New Zealand’s elderly, Yukiko says the social and financial costs make this investment worthwhile.

“Failure to create housing that supports a high quality of life can lead to isolation and feelings of being a burden,” Yukiko says. “There is also an economic cost from the high level of care needed to outweigh the cost of inadequate housing. As the ageing population is expected to grow rapidly, the impact on society will be immense.”

Yukiko plans to continue looking into housing solutions for the elderly.

“I plan to look more closely at specific architectural solutions to cultural and social housing needs for the elderly, as well as focussing on housing design to support those with specific impairments like dementia,” Yukiko says. “This work is closely aligned with ongoing research at Victoria University of Wellington into therapeutic and rehabilitative built environments, and I look forward to working with the researchers here to solve these problems.”