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Designing for students of life, regardless of age

Jami Mohlenkamp
Principal and senior living practice leader, OZ Architecture

When thinking about designing for education, architects and interior designers often reflect on the needs of students from K-12 to higher education. We think about what learning spaces look like for young children to young adults, including where they sit, how they interact with teachers and how they work with and learn from each other. We might envision an elementary school classroom or a college student union or residence hall.

At first, it seems like a stretch to think that there would be any overlap between architectural design for education spaces and older adult communities such as independent living or active-adult communities. Aren’t buildings designed for older adults wildly different from those designed for a fifth grader, or even a college student?

The truth is that both of these types of building environments are evolving all the time. There are a few reasons for this. The current design thinking in education, for example, is a move toward more universal design and flexibility in spaces – design elements that are usable in a natural way by all people by all ages and capabilities. This move has to do with making learning more accessible, as well as doing away with old motifs of a central professor and a tired, tiered student audience. Today, students are more engaged with and in charge of their own learning objectives.

The same might be said of older adult design, where universal design elements are elevating not only the function, but also the look and feel of communities intended as residents for older adults. These communities are changing not only to accommodate different acuity levels (such as independent living, assisted living and memory care environments) but also as a way of introducing modern amenities and living spaces ideal for many different age groups and ability levels to gather, engage in activities, and, naturally, learn new things.

A quotation from Henry Ford helps us sum up our thinking, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Humans do well when we keep learning, no matter our age.

While education and older adult design are typically very age specific environments, we wanted to explore what would happen if older adult design merged with education design.

While more reflection on this topic is warranted, we’ve identified three primary themes that represent overlapping design values of student populations and older adult communities: creating community, combatting stigma and fostering lifelong learning.

Creating Community 

One of the reasons for combining design thinking from education and older adult communities is to combat loneliness. A 2016 New York Times piece cited loneliness as a growing epidemic, drawing on evidence that being lonely can disturb our sleep, cause abnormal immune responses and even trigger cognitive decline. Another study followed over 3 million people and suggested that loneliness peaks first in teenagers and young adults, and then again in the oldest individuals. Young people and old people are more alike than we think – and, unfortunately, they’re both at risk of feeling isolated.

Common spaces that foster interaction and chance social connections, then, are essential. Indoors, this might look like a community kitchen, laundry room with intentional seating, lounge or game room. Outdoor areas can create a social fabric between buildings with opportunities for both play and people watching.

Designing these types of flexible community spaces encourages gathering together, no matter the age, and could feasibly work for multiple age groups in a single space, such as an older adult community with public space open to nearby college students, or a college with a Zen garden with time for quiet reflection and community events such as tai chi or group meditation.

Combating Stigma 

At certain ages, it can be difficult to connect outside of one’s age group. In an education setting and in older adult communities, we are often surrounded by others of a similar age. With a lack of direct connection to others of different ages, it is possible for stigmas and opinions to be created.

Design can work to combat stigma against both old and young by creating spaces everyone can use, regardless of age or ability. For example, education design has come a long way over the past few decades. The tiered lecture halls with endless stairs in yesterday’s universities are being replaced by level-floor classrooms that have movable furniture, partitions and dry erase boards or digital screens for flexibility and easier collaboration in the learning environment. New spaces easily allow someone in a wheelchair to roll up next to someone in a traditional seat, and work together around the same workspace. This flexibility and usability makes the environment significantly more navigable by someone with physical or mobility challenges, regardless of age.

Furthermore, thoughtful housing options can foster integration, perhaps designing older adult housing adjacent to student housing on campus, with shared amenities between. This allows those of different ages to intermingle at their choosing and in different environments, indoors and out.

As another example, student housing intended for specific areas of study, such as nursing or gerontology, can be attached to older adult housing so the students are interacting daily with residents in a nonlearning environment. Designated spaces in older adult housing design, such as exam rooms, can bring these groups into the same space without sacrificing privacy.

This works especially well if common “everyday” spaces can be programmed to be both learning spaces and community spaces. For example, the same space might be designed in a way that it can hold a knitting class at 3:00 and a beer tasting mixer at 4:00, with participant overlap encouraged.

Fostering Lifelong Learning 

The concept of learning new things throughout life applies across the ages. Many older adults seek a return to an educational setting to get a degree that interested them in life, in lieu of a degree they used to get a job. Universities and colleges also are adapting classes and programs to teach while minimizing or eliminating homework and exams. This encourages older adults to truly immerse themselves in lifelong learning.

Designing integrated, mixed-use buildings also could create learning opportunities, such as including a public library in a 55-plus community. Designing a college’s maker space near an older adult community could allow retired professionals to tutor students and impart trade or craft knowledge. Younger students might kindle renewed interest in seasoned professionals by sharing and teaching about updates to technology. These interactions also may lead to older adults and young students working together on new products or technologies for aging populations.

By shifting our own thinking as to which types of spaces belong to which age groups, we can begin to consider how to bridge generations in meaningful ways and with meaningful, intentional spaces.

Featured in the July issue of Health Care Properties Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.