Aging in the right place: Designing housing for wellbeing and older adults

Design strategies and research to support aging in the right place.

Through a collaboration between Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC), Happy Cities, and the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Department of Gerontology, 20 multi-unit rental buildings were audited across Vancouver and Victoria to expand our understanding of multi-unit housing design, programming, and policy that encourages aging in the right place and social wellbeing. We partnered with Concert Properties and Brightside Community Homes Foundation, two Hey Neighbour Collective partners, to assess diverse buildings and engage with residents and staff.

Aging in the right place

This project builds on decades of research expertise and knowledge on social wellbeing in multi-unit housing, at a time when older adults (55+) are the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population. While the majority of older adults want to age in place, many live in apartments, co-ops, and condos that weren’t built with older adults in mind. Many multi-unit buildings can pose health, safety, and accessibility challenges as their residents age.

Above all, having secure, stable, and affordable tenure is essential for allowing people to age in the right place. At the same time, research shows that having a wide variety of social interactions is crucial for wellbeing. For older adults in particular, having a supportive social community can help improve safety, autonomy, physical health, and resilience during extreme weather events. Through our research, we explored how neighbourhood and building design factors—such as location, design of indoor and outdoor shared spaces, and building layout and circulation—impact or hinder aging in place, in the communities that people call home. By designing housing that supports aging in the right place, we can nurture greater social wellbeing and neighbourliness in our communities. 

Factors for aging in the right place in multi-unit housing (image by Happy Cities)
Factors for aging in the right place in multi-unit housing (Image by Happy Cities)

Although this research focused on older adults, the principles, strategies, and actions benefit residents of all ages. In particular, there is growing interest in multigenerational communities that allow residents of all ages to ‘age in place.’ When designing homes with our aging in the right place principles, people of all ages and abilities benefit.

How to assess a building’s potential to support aging in place

The design of the built environment plays a significant role in shaping how people feel and interact within spaces. Our research process included:

  • On-site built environment audits, using a unique tool developed by Happy Cities and SFU. This allowed us to see whether the built environment supported aging in place and social connection
  • Behavioural mapping, where we observed how residents used and interacted in spaces (including with our researchers!) 
  • Focus group conversations, hosted at three of the buildings that we studied
  • Interviews with staff and management, to capture programming and policy happenings at the buildings
  • An in-person community forum, where we gathered partners across the housing system to explore the topics of aging in the right place and social connection

Key research findings

  • Important spaces for social connection: Our research and engagement found that lobbies and mailboxes, outdoor spaces such as courtyards, and flexible indoor spaces are crucial social spaces for residents. 
  • Importance of neighbourhood (third) spaces: Residents who live in proximity to community amenities—and frequently participate in neighbourhood activities and social interactions—reported a stronger sense of community belonging.
  • Co-location: Through our observations, we saw a significant increase in activity in indoor amenity spaces that were adjacent to a lobby. This proximity to the entry point of the building helps generate activity in the space since it is on people’s path of daily travel. 
  • Social seating: At buildings where benches are strategically placed near entrances and transition areas, we observed residents spending time in those spaces, creating more opportunities for social interaction. In outdoor spaces, the quality and availability of seating are critical for older adults. If a space does not have seating, it likely won’t be used.
  • Social lobbies: We found that comfortable seating areas and well-organized, accessible mailboxes serve as focal points for social interaction. The most common activities we observed people doing in lobbies were lounging, greeting neighbours, and observing the public realm. Pets helped facilitate social encounters. In intergenerational buildings, we observed many interactions between children and older adults. 
  • The power of pets: Outdoor spaces that are pet-friendly encourage interaction among residents. These spaces were frequently used by pet owners, which helped spark connections and conversations. 
  • Community gardens: Community gardens increase the use of outdoor shared spaces among older adults. The gardens provide a reason to visit the space, which can provide older adults with motivation to go for a small walk or connect with neighbours.
  • Laundry rooms can be social: Laundry rooms that provide good lighting, particularly natural light, and a comfortable seating area serve as an area for spontaneous social interaction. We observed residents using these spaces to relax or read while doing their laundry. 
  • Small-scale social spaces: Of the 20 buildings that we audited, only three had small-scale social nooks. Although some of these social nooks were well-located (adjacent to the elevator lobby) and had access to natural light, they tended to be underused by residents. We observed that having accessible and comfortable seating and a reason to visit the nook (such as a bookcase) were critical to the success of the space. 

Based on our findings, we identified four key strategies to promote aging in the right place

  1. Establish age-friendly housing systems: Ensure that housing systems provide dignified, stable, affordable, and healthy housing choices for older adults
  2. Build options for social interaction: maximize choice over social integration by balancing connection and exposure
  3. Design user-friendly environments: Prioritize comfort, accessibility, and safety in order to maximize autonomy.
  4. Activate spaces for connection: Activate spaces with things to see and do that help build connections and a sense of belonging

In the report, we include 81 ideas that support these strategies through building design, programming, and policy. These ideas were generated from our engagement, audits, and observations.