Niloofar Hedayati on how better use of space in multi-unit buildings can improve social connectedness among older adults

Over a lively phone call with Niloofar, we chatted about her work in Iran and how she’s applying that experience to new research in Canada.

How do you pronounce your name?

“Neel – ooo – far.” It means “lily” in Persian. Some of my friends call me Neel.

When did you come to Canada?

I came in September 2022, and I’m totally new! I love Vancouver. I’d heard lots of beautiful and great things before I came here. The combination of nature and houses is excellent. I live in New Westminster, but I try to go around and see as much as possible. I love North Vancouver because of the street’s nature and slope. I come from a city that doesn’t have any hills.

How does your first Master’s degree fit with your current work?

I come from an architecture background and I have a Master’s in architecture. It was a natural progression I think, I was focused on environmental psychology and I love this field! I wasn’t supposed to do gerontology specifically but after reaching out to my supervisor, Dr. Atiya Mahmood, who also has an architecture background, she told me about environmental gerontology. I hadn’t heard of it before, we didn’t have this major in Iran.

But, I had experience working with older adult populations in Iran, specifically with the municipality of Mashhad. It’s the second-largest city in Iran, after Tehran, and where I used to live. There, I was more focused on neighbourhood design, specifically looking at spaces for older adults who have mobility problems. We wanted to know what we could do to encourage them to get out of their houses and interact with the community. At first, the program – called “Our Neighbourhood” – was focused on all people with mobility issues but after a few months, we noticed that the majority of those with mobility issues were predominantly older adults.

My architectural background helped me with this experience and now here at HNC. The problems are kind of similar (neighbourhoods vs multi-unit buildings). People have the same issues, but the solutions have to be a bit different.

I think it’s wonderful to see spaces being used in a new way and I like to feel helpful, even in small ways.

Do you think you could apply lessons from that work to your research in multi-unit buildings?

Programming in buildings could be really effective here, for example making better use of amenity buildings or common areas. It could be created to help people know other cultures. Another thing I’ve been thinking about is the idea of multi-generational buildings: if you’re an older adult that has some young people or children in your building, you might see them playing and be encouraged to go outside and join in: it creates a sense of youthfulness. And at the same time, younger people can benefit from the perspectives and lived experiences of older adults.

What do you love about studying older adult populations?

Older adults offer a perspective on life that is totally different and I’m glad to be familiar with it at my age. It’s important to have this perspective. Sometimes older adults have limitations: not enough social relationships or physical health challenges, and life is different.

What work do you do with Hey Neighbour?

I’m part of a team working with Dr. Mahmood (SFU) and Madeleine Hebert (Happy Cities), conducting audits of 15-20 multi-unit buildings in Vancouver and Victoria, using behavioural observation methods. What that means is that we go to different multi-unit buildings and try to understand if people know their neighbours, and do they interact or not. We want to know if their home environments encourage neighbourly social connections and we’re also looking at built form and design elements that might be improved to support residents to age in place well. 

In multi-unit buildings, socializing with neighbours is influenced by all sorts of factors including personality, language, culture, health condition, etc. But the design of buildings also has a big influence. Most of the buildings I’ve looked at so far have stairs leading to places where people might gather, limiting access to those with mobility issues. Simple solutions like ramps could make those spaces more inclusive and better used. Maybe placing ramps or elevators in buildings that don’t have either, would help them to leave their homes. 

I also see lots of potential in amenity rooms, but they often aren’t well furnished or well designed, for example, many have poor lighting. With minor adjustments, these small problems could be removed and they would be more well-used.

Niloofar wears a colourful headscarf while holding a bottle of green paint, kneeling next to a sculpture that she helped design in Mashhad, Iran.

What do you find interesting about this work?

The most interesting point for me is social interaction, and all the things that are related to it, specifically to my background in architecture. I would love to combine these two to understand whether the environments in and around multi-unit housing can really change older adults’ quality of life and their health. I’m thinking of my capstone and haven’t chosen a topic yet, but maybe I’ll study multi-unit building common areas and their effects on social interactions among older adults.

Do you live in a multi-unit building?

Yes! When I lived in Iran, I was in a four-story building with one unit per story and that was a small building. But the building I live in here is totally different. It’s not new, but I like it. It has a courtyard and a big community room, and they’re wonderful spaces but oddly they aren’t used much. My building is mixed ages, I see lots of children, young families and also older adults.

Have you gotten to know your neighbours?

I tried so much! I know a few people and I’d love to meet people from other cultures and learn about them, but people aren’t always willing. Maybe they’re busy. People in my building will say “hello,” and smile and that’s it. But I was thinking that for the upcoming Persian New Year, maybe I’ll offer some food or design some elements for a celebration in my community room.

What has it been like making friends in Vancouver?

Fortunately, when I came here, I already had two friends here, and they are also my classmates and fellow research assistants: Rojan and Sogol! So, I didn’t have any problem with finding friends, because I already had them and I can get to know their friends, too. I’m a talkative person, so I’m always excited to talk to people. I’m pretty curious about learning about people’s lives. 

When I was on a bus going home, I started talking to a woman about the weather and after a while, I noticed she was Iranian, so we started talking in Farsi and got off the bus together. We walked to the same building and that’s when we realized we were neighbours! I’ve met her twice since then, in the lobby and also in my home, she’s really kind.

What’s one delicious food that you can’t find in Vancouver?

I’m really proud of my country’s cuisine. In Iran, we have a specific delicious food called shashlik, it’s kind of similar to steak, and it’s famous internationally. I love to make it, but it’s difficult to cook at home. And I haven’t seen it at any of the Iranian restaurants I’ve visited here. But, maybe I’m too new. I will find it! Food is everything!