By Lena Gan, Program Director, Master of Ageing, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne
How does it feel to live in an environment that seems to become less and less friendly as time goes by? As the proportion of older people grows, are the places in which we live serving us as well as they could? Consider the following experiences of ‘constraining’ private and public places.
An older woman living alone in regional Victoria called Council to request help to fix the broken handrail in her toilet but Council couldn’t schedule the work in for over a week. During that time she took the bus into the local Community Health Centre every day to use the toilets there.
In Barcelona, my flatmate and I were returning to our apartment one morning. As my flatmate was searching his backpack for the keys, an older woman shuffled up, clearly very agitated, and rang the concierge’s bell. She saw us and indicated that we should open the door for her urgently.
Unfortunately it took a few minutes to locate the keys and by this time, a sleepy concierge had appeared and let us all in. As we followed the two older women along the passageway, we noticed that the agitated woman was leaking. How often have you found it difficult to locate public toilets, many of which are hidden in back corridors and not well signposted?
Our environments don’t encourage older people to venture out. Picture: Elderly woman + her view, Borya/Flickr
And we wonder why social isolation and loneliness is a growing problem. Our populations are ageing, but our environments on the whole do not encourage older people to venture out. As we age, our capacities, needs and desires change but for the most part, our environments are not designed to accommodate these changes.
How often do we actually think about age-friendliness when conceiving of private and public spaces and how often are older people invited to participate in the design process? Do we know what the priorities are for older people? Are they all different or are there some common ones that could be addressed as matters of urgency? And is it just the physical environment that we should be considering?
HELPING OLDER PEOPLE STAY CONNECTED AND HEALTHY
On the World Health Organization (WHO) website we find that: “An age-friendly world enables people of all ages to actively participate in community activities and treats everyone with respect, regardless of their age. It is a place that makes it easy for older people to stay connected to people who are important to them. And it helps people stay healthy and active even at the oldest ages and provides appropriate support to those who can no longer look after themselves.”
The needs of older people should be taken into account when planning spaces. Picture: Shutterstock
The website then goes on to say that older people and environments in interaction with each other have great potential to either enable or constrain healthy ageing. It talks about the importance of age-friendly environments, emphasising the impact of environments on “our physical and mental capacity across a person’s life course and into older age and also how well we adjust to loss of function and other forms of adversity that we may experience at different stages of life, and in particular in later years. Both older people and the environments in which they live are diverse, dynamic and changing.”
Environments can also be enabling. In my neighbourhood there is a commercial centre that has recently been renovated. The communal area attached to the food hall is now very diverse. Parts of the ceiling have been lowered and there are multiple types of lighting and seating. There are large fixed group tables, smaller moveable tables, coffee tables, benches, soft seating, banquettes, stools and sturdy stackable chairs. There are power outlets for laptops and cables to recharge mobile phones.
I’ve noticed that every Saturday and probably during the week, a group of older migrant men gathers to chat, drink coffee and play cards. The size of the group varies and sometimes there is more than one group. For me there is something reassuring about seeing them enjoying each other’s company amongst the rest of the community.
Since the renovation, the area is much busier and the people who use it are multi-generational - students, teenagers, young mothers with children, families, grandparents with grandchildren and business people. This all makes for a great atmosphere and I’m sure that the businesses couldn’t be happier.
It is not just the physical environment that makes a place age-friendly.
The WHO set up an age-friendly cities project in 2006 and a number of cities including Manchester in the UK have since joined up. There are some inspiring stories coming from Manchester including the many programs that its cultural institutions now offer to older citizens. These include ‘Coffee, Cake and Culture’ for people living with dementia, ‘Philosophy Café’, a fortnightly informal discussion session at the Manchester Art Gallery and ‘Artifact Stories’ where mobile museum collections visit residents of aged care facilities.
So, how do Melbourne and Victoria rate in terms of age-friendliness? What do its citizens think about how well our physical and social environment enables healthy ageing? As part of Melbourne Knowledge Week, we are running an event that seeks to explore this question with the active participation of older members of the community from regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne along with a selection of academics.