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How to Make Senior Friendly Public Spaces

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonJune 8, 2015
How to Make Senior Friendly Public Spaces

As the global population of seniors increases, so does the importance of designing public spaces that are senior friendly, preserving safety and dignity for all.

Learn more from these age-friendly cities and organizations about how to make senior friendly public spaces.

Cities and Senior Friendly Services

Much as we might not like to admit it, getting older can usher in a host of physical, cognitive, and lifestyle changes that affect the way we move through the world. Signs get harder to read, getting through narrow store aisles can be a trial, and falling becomes a very real cause of potentially life-threatening injuries.

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The challenge for all of us — not just those who are reaching senior status — is that our cities and public spaces need to be designed for the ease and comfort of everyone, whether we’re children or adults, and whether we’re living with a disability or in peak physical condition.

“An age-friendly city encourages active ageing by optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age,” says the World Health Organization. “In practical terms, an age-friendly city adapts its structures and services to be accessible to and inclusive of older people with varying needs and capacities.”

These considerations are becoming more and more pressing as our population ages: according to the Administration on Aging, the number of U.S. adults over age 65 is expected to more than double from 2000-2030.

What Is a Senior Friendly Space?

Whether we’re taking public transportation, going to the supermarket or walking in the park, the movements and activities we take for granted in earlier adulthood need to be negotiated in a whole new way when we get older. A space that is senior friendly takes into account the needs and preferences of older adults as well as younger ones, promoting safety, inclusion and respect.

The Lewis Center at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs cites several factors that are key to senior-friendly cities: “walkable streets, availability and proximity of parks and recreational facilities, availability of exercise equipment, pedestrian amenities including sidewalks or footpaths, adequate lighting and intersection crossing features; aesthetics such as foliage, pleasant scenery.”

Inside of buildings, issues of safety and accessibility are paramount. Appropriate lighting, walkways, signage and rest areas can do a lot to help seniors (and all of us) effectively navigate indoors.

Public Spaces Can Pose Hazards for Older Adults

It is easier to disregard such considerations when we are still healthy enough not to need them, but the truth is, ignoring issues of senior safety can have tragic consequences.

Those shiny, waxed supermarket floors; subway stations with stairs but no elevators; poorly lit hallways — all of these factors can lead to injuries and falls in older people. Falls, according to the CDC, are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries in adults over 65; they can lead to hip fractures and traumatic brain injuries, and they cause many seniors to avoid or limit their physical activities.

Of course, the design of our public spaces does not always have such drastic negative effects, but even seemingly minor features can cause major aggravation for people who are older or less mobile. Think about signage that is difficult to find, or loud intrusive music that might cause distraction or even agitation in someone with cognitive impairment. Some spaces might not have adequate places to rest, or accessible toilet facilities. Even customer service can be improved for older people, notes the WHO, whether it’s preferential treatment, a separate line, or simply a place to sit.

Making Public Spaces More Senior Friendly

UCLA’s Lewis Center proposes a number of outcomes that public spaces should try to satisfy when it comes to seniors’ quality of life. Their report focuses on parks, but the majority of concerns are the same for interior spaces, too:

  1. Control and choice: “A sense of control is of particular importance to elders, who may be seeing some of their physical or cognitive abilities lessening,” says the UCLA report. If a senior can access the space easily on their own and orientate themselves without too much trouble — i.e., through senior-friendly public transit, adequate signage, and appropriate layout — and if there is variety and accessibility for a variety of users, then the place is senior friendly.
  2. Safety and accessibility: This includes good lighting; even, non-slip walking surfaces; escalators and elevators if possible (and adequate stairway railings when other options are not available); as well as entry ramps for wheelchairs and walkers, and safe pedestrian crossings for navigating traffic. Enforcing safety regulations and crime prevention measures is also key to helping seniors have a sense of security in public spaces.
  3. Social support and comfort: While these measures may not be quite as immediately obvious, paying attention to the ease of social interaction in a public space can be critical. Such measures can be as basic as seating arrangements, amenities like water fountains, and customer services, or more holistic, such as senior-specific recreation areas in parks and gyms­. Seniors also need to be made aware that such services and amenities exist. Besides encouraging social contact and reducing isolation, paying attention to issues of comfort and interaction also fosters a sense of safety.

Our cities and public spaces have begun to take these issues into account, but we still have a ways to go before the environment is truly senior friendly.

As architects and designers plan for a future that includes a growing senior population, those of us with older loved ones will have the opportunity to advocate for safe and age-positive changes to the spaces we use every day. Of course, those changes will benefit us, too, as we reach our own golden years.

What, in your opinion, is the most important consideration for creating a senior friendly public space? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
Sarah Stevenson

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