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Rethinking New Zealand architecture’s approach to senior living

A futuristic retirement village scheduled to be built in Malaysia by 2017

Forget stuffy retirement villages filled with elderly people drinking cups of tea. Marchese Partners Christchurch principal Simon Johnson says New Zealand needs to get more innovative with its aged living options to suit seniors’ active lifestyles. 

Like most of the developed world, New Zealand has a large aging population that’s heading into retirement.

In 2016, there were 711,200 Kiwis aged 65 and over, and that is expected to double to between 1.3 and 1.5 million people by 2046.

At the same time, up-and-coming generations are predicted to have far longer lives than any generation before them.

The government has predicted that a boy born in 2014 will have a life expectancy of 90, while a girl is expected on average to live until 93. This is about 10 years longer on average than someone born in 1950.

With all this in mind, consideration needs to be taken when designing for aged living.

Marchese Partners Christchurch principal Simon Johnson says the current options available for retirees have it wrong, and more innovative, inspiring retirement solutions are needed.

“There’s a real stigma around seniors living, which needs to change,” Johnson says. 

“As designers we need to change peoples’ perceptions about retirement and aged care and shift the mindset from seeing a retirement village as the last resort into something that becomes a lifestyle choice.

“The old-style retirement villages – one level, low-set, redbrick, rabbit warrens – are no longer attractive to people anymore.  People want a retirement village that inspires them, and makes them happy.  That’s the stigma we need to break.”

Marchese Partners is an international architecture firm that expanded to Auckland in 2015.

It’s opening a new office in Christchurch to assist in the rebuild, with a particular focus on aged care and living options.

Johnson, who's a Christchurch local, is returning home to head up the new office after spending six years with Marchese Partners in Brisbane, Australia. 

Johnson says in Christchurch, there is a shortage of options at the higher end af the market, leading many to stay in their homes rather than move into retirement care.

He says this is because seniors’ needs are different to the generations before them – they might want to downsize, but at the same time, not give up the lifestyle that comes with living in their own home.

“The current retiring generation are post-war baby boomers who, in comparison to generations previous, have lived a life of relative luxury,” he says. 

“No longer is retirement age reserved for sitting around drinking cups of tea. It’s about exploring, remaining active, and socialising in your newfound free time.”

Victoria University researcher Kathy Glasgow had similar findings when she conducted a study on baby boomers to explore their views on old age.

She said boomers wanted choice and control over their lifestyle as they retired.

“My advice is for retirement developers to watch mainstream property marketers more closely as their housing options without the ‘age tags’ will have greater appeal to boomers in the next few years.”

 Johnson says with the design of retirement living, a balance between independence and a sense of community is key.

Spaces need to be created that aid social interaction between residents and their children and grandchildren, he says.

“The benefits gained from intergenerational contact cannot be underestimated.”

Health conditions that come with old age, such as dementia, should also be considered in the design by creating a sense of familiarity in the design, he says.

“Distinctive architectural and landscape features can also assist with way-finding and vision impairment,” Johnson says.

He says he Mark Moran Vaucluse project in Sydney and the Aveo Clayfield project in Brisbane, Australia are examples of the new wave of senior living villages, and Christchurch could be the next port of call – especially given the flat land available in the area.

“New Zealand, like many parts of the world, is only just beginning to create these new environments for seniors.”