Silver Tsunami – A Wave of Design Challenges

There were 17 earthquakes in Oklahoma this past month. SEVENTEEN in 31 DAYS. Do the math on that one! This is an ominous expression of Mother Nature’s voice, and analogous to what we will face in our population tipping point in our near future. The Elder Earthquake or The Silver Tsunami… either disaster, is our environment prepared?

An estimated one in five Americans will be 65 or older by 2030. The aging of nearly 77 million baby boomers will have an impact on all aspects of business, including health care, finance, real estate, education and the workforce. This is the Silver Tsunami. Twenty years from now, those aged 60 and older will account for 25% of Maryland’s population. What will the impact be on our communities? How will the paths that we navigate every day need to change to serve the vast numbers of our aging population? What will the demands be on the public built environment? What will the impact be on our senior living communities?

Not all of these questions can be easily answered today, but they will urge an evolution of change in our everyday world. From a built environment perspective, public environments will need to be more supportive of an aging population that is eager to stay involved with the local community. Creating walkable communities with easy and safe access to public transportation is a good start. General design for pedestrian navigation might be reconsidered – currently crosswalks at stoplights are designed to .6 meters/second, however the natural walking cadence for someone over the age of 87 is not nearly that fast. Additionally, access to public transportation requires stamina beyond an elder’s ability and needs to be convenient – will transportation systems bend or will specialized mobility transport need to be increased?

The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) advocates designing “complete streets” which are safe and comfortable for everyone (whether travelling by foot, bike or car). The concept includes wider sidewalks, bus stops with shelter benches and well maintained crosswalks. Other activists propose repurposing vacant big box stores into senior community centers combined with children’s programs to encourage multi-generational interaction and activity.

While the majority of seniors today prefer to “age in place” and move to long term care facilities only when necessary, senior living communities which encourage an active, engaged lifestyle are still important. Creating intimate living spaces, decentralized staff work areas and numerous amenities (such as fitness & theater rooms and dining areas that are less like dining halls and more like your local neighborhood restaurant) is key. Long corridors of rooms for long term care is a design of the past, replaced by small homelike settings with rooms radiating off of central activity areas for social gathering and dining.

Regarding design to meet ADA in both our intimate interior environments and public spaces, there may be good reason to make adjustments to meet the increase in this aging population – 25% of the population 65+ will be added to the general population already needing accommodations. Will there be an increase in the number of facilities needed to support more elders in an accessible manner? For instance, the number of ADA toilet rooms may need to proportionately increase to maintain pace with the aging population.

These are all issues our design professionals will have to address, whether it’s multipurpose rooms for social events in senior living communities or more appropriately timed crosswalks at stoplights. If you have an opportunity to observe an elder navigating their world, pay attention – their obstacles may very well be what you will have to advocate to correct to support the wave of seniors on their path to a safe and healthy third age.

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