How color and design affect environments for the aging
As our eyes age, the way we perceive patterns, textures, and colors changes; AIA partner Benjamin Moore identifies how to use color and contrast to improve quality of life for seniors
Design professionals have a unique opportunity to improve quality of life in senior-care environments; however, designing these spaces goes beyond pleasing aesthetics alone. Aging and diseases can affect many aspects of daily life that depend on mobility, independence, and social involvement, and designers are challenged with creating spaces that are functional, healthy, and safe, while encouraging exploration, movement, and social interaction. One of those areas is vision and color perception: How we see and respond to color can change as we age, so color selections for walls and objects, and even the texture of those colors, is a vital part of the design process.
Whether modifying an existing room in a home or in the common areas and private rooms of independent- or assisted-living communities, painting is a cost-efficient tactic. If used purposefully, color is a powerful tool that can not only improve design aesthetics, but also play a role in helping older individuals be more independent and comfortable in their living spaces.
As the health of the eye deteriorates from conditions and diseases, common problems may include impaired color perception, blurred or cloudy vision, and even partial or complete blindness in some cases. For adults living with these conditions, complex patterns in design may become confusing, distracting, and difficult to interpret. For example, bold stripes may look like they are moving, and a pattern of white dots on a dark background can look like specks that need to be cleaned up.
Even in the absence of disease, age brings with it declining vision. Aging eyes lose the ability to discriminate pale colors, making yellows and other pastels appear white. They are also unable to differentiate shades of blue, green, and purple as these cooler colors can read gray. People with color deficiencies are best able to perceive bright colors at the warm end of the spectrum, such as reds and oranges.
Additionally, as people age, they become more sensitive to glare and light. Thus, duller sheens such as flat, matte, or eggshell finishes are the best options in environments for the aging.
In some cases, people eventually lose the ability to judge depth, and high color contrast is required to help them discern one object from another. As design professionals evaluate the visual adjustments necessary in every space, they should incorporate color and contrast to highlight elements in the room, make them more visible, and facilitate navigation and orientation. For example, paint doors, frames, and light switch covers in contrast from the walls so they are easier to see.
Equally as important is the quality of materials and type of paint used. Given that residents will either remain in the building or need to return to the space shortly after application, products should have minimal impact on indoor air quality. To address these concerns, paint manufacturers have developed premium paints with reduced VOCs and emissions.
People are living longer, and the number of senior citizens in the US will continue to grow. As the generations age, it will become increasingly important for design professionals to create spaces that accommodate the needs of the population and, more importantly, contribute to improving their overall quality of life.
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