Seventy going on forty

First Published in Indesign Magazine, Issue 71

Words Leanne Amodeo

Today’s retirees are anything but retired. They are socially-empowered, work-a-happy, lovers of all things lifestyle. It’s up to designers to offer these ‘seniors living’ a new aged-care proposition that is about choice and opportunity.


Whoever subscribes to the idea ‘life as we once knew it ends when you hit 70’ hasn’t checked out the Instagram page of Baddie Winkle (@baddiewinkle). Nothing bursts senior citizen stereotypes quicker than a browse through the account of this sartorially fabulous great grandmother, who at 85 became an internet sensation. Of course, sequins and tie-dye isn’t for everyone (retiree or no), but what this hugely popular social influencer’s online profile suggests is the attitude of an older generation, and indeed attitudes towards aging in general, have changed considerably.


These shifts in social norms are being embraced worldwide and rightly so. In Australia alone, according to the government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 15 per cent of Australians were aged 65 and over in 2014, compared to 8 per cent in 1964. The AIHW also reports that based on population projections by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, by 2064 there will be 23 per cent of people aged 65 and over, and 5 per cent aged 85 and over. It’s impossible to ignore that Australia’s population is aging and our life expectancy is increasing, which is why creative industries such as design are responding. So what behaviours have resulted from these shifts to make designers and architects change the way they currently design for retirement living?


The seniors living and aged-care sector is a rapidly expanding one and practices specialising in this area are working hard to innovate and adapt. Plus Architecture stands out for recently distilling its thinking on the subject to identify seven key shifts in the retirement living sector, with a view to achieving more effective design outcomes. Unsurprisingly, attitudes towards higher density living, health philosophies and working patterns are amongst them. But the main driver in the recent revitalisation of retirement facilities is a change in lifestyle expectations.

Buildings and people

Vertical retirement living concept

As Plus Architecture’s head of Senior Living, Nick Antoniou, explains:

“Seniors today are much more discerning and if operators and developers want to capture that market, they need to provide for it with a much more tailored product.”

Just like shopping centres have upped their game and made the user-experience more appealing, so too have retirement living providers.


This newly minted ‘ageless generation’ – where 70 is the new 40 and some people are still doing some type of work well into their 80s – is no longer content with the cookie-cutter offerings of yesteryear because they have more choice now. While there’s a minimum standard of provision, seniors are looking beyond this for an experience that promises something extra. Technology isn’t even a deal-breaker anymore. It’s a given that senior living and aged-care facilities come with inbuilt technologies, although advancements in medical and wearable technology will certainly push design boundaries in the next 20 years. Exoskeletons could replace handrails and wheelchairs, for example, and eventually so-called ‘retirement villages’ won’t be discernible from regular multi-residential complexes.


While seniors can request a one-or-two-bedroom apartment that comes with or without a study nook, what makes them choose one facility over another goes well beyond four walls. “It’s the add-ons that make the difference,” says head of aged-care innovation at Plus Architecture, Ingrid Williams. “Seniors don’t want to move into a facility and feel like this is all they’ve got. They want to feel part of a community, rather than feeling socially isolated or disconnected. And they still want a quality life experience, particularly as their mobility is likely to decline over time, which means going out to a restaurant with their family – it just so happens the restaurant is two floors down from where they live.”


In this sector’s wellness economy, the integration of retail, hospitality and other commercial typologies is crucial to providing holistic care, encompassing social connection (whether incidental or deliberate), as well as encouraging a sense of empowerment and independence. And seniors don’t have to feel like they’ve sacrificed anything because they haven’t; shops, cafés and a day spa are now on their doorstep.


New developments that incorporate multiple typologies essentially function as mini cities, offering a shopping-centre-style experience where everything is conveniently located. Australia has the landmass to support both high-rise and low-rise options and planning can be tailored to a specific tribe, or particular market. More importantly, these mini cities accommodate the families of senior residents in an environment that promotes inter-generational activity.


Antoniou is currently involved with three vertical senior living and aged-care developments across Australia. They include retail and commercial propositions, but the thing he’s most excited about is the possibility of incorporating a primary school, making each development truly inter-generational. “Seniorcare and childcare works well together,” he says. “The concept is that families are much more involved in each other’s everyday lives so their senior members aren’t isolated.” It’s a community-focused model that’s not only a nice idea, but also progressive in its interpretation of social interaction. Understanding the human condition is at the core of these newly integrated facilities and what ultimately allows for such compelling, highly functional design outcomes.