Performance Architecture: Design for Successful Aging

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” the saying goes, but you can help the old dog continue to do the tricks he’s always done. As dogs and humans grow older, well-known tricks and tasks can become more challenging to perform and require different approaches.

Clearly, a dose of elder performance improvement is called for. But rather than improving the elder, we improve the elder’s environment instead. If an older person loves to cook but can no longer stand on a stool to reach high cabinets in the kitchen, we move frequently used cooking tools and supplies to lower storage, or remodel the kitchen with cabinets hung within easy reach. We don’t change the elder’s behavior; we change the environment by re-engineering it to meet the elder’s changing abilities.

How Old is a Senior Citizen?

In the U.S., 65 is the age commonly considered the gateway to senior citizen-hood. We become eligible for senior discounts for retail stores, restaurants, travel, and many services. In the U.S. we can apply for Medicare, our government health insurance. In some places, age 55 announces our entry to the second half of life. For example, many retirement communities require residents to be 55 or better and cinemas offer senior discounts for movies.

“You’re only as old as you feel,” is another familiar saying, and there is some truth in it. As we age we may discover that we feel energetic and enthusiastic but when we tackle a physical task, our body betrays us, saying, “Really? You want me to lift that?” Most people in reasonably good health continue to participate in activities they enjoy as they age, but they may need some help to stay involved and productive in their lives and communities.

In a recent survey conducted by London’s Design Museum, respondents chose age 73 as old. And some rejected the word old completely and said we weren’t old at any age (Schwab). Yet the number of adults age 65 and older will double in the next 25 years (Little). With the Baby Boom generation set to crest in numbers about now, there is an unprecedented need for services and support for our older citizens. There are tremendous opportunities for new and existing businesses that provide goods and services for this demographic to prosper and thrive.

Will we have years full of life or a life full of years? We do have choices about how and where we grow older and also about how we think about aging. It is a societal responsibility to plan and innovate for the longer lives so many of us are and will be living. And it falls to each of us to re-engineer our environment to help ourselves as some aspects of living become more difficult.

The Challenges of Aging

So what challenges do we face as we age? There are as many answers to this question as there are people asking it. As Performance Architects, we prefer to start with a broader view so we can explore the opportunities to re-design the environments in which our elders live and socialize.

Most lists of challenges for the elderly include these categories:

  • Financial concerns
  • Health, chronic disease, increase in medications
  • Loneliness and isolation from family, friends, and those who have passed on
  • Performing some of the activities of daily living 
  • Coping with and accepting the physical changes of aging
  • Boredom from retirement and lack of routine activities or special interests

Change of any kind presents obstacles to most people. It does not become more acceptable or easier as we age. This means that every concern a particular older person has is magnified by worry and fear about finding a workable solution. And this is where design comes in.

For every classification of concerns on the list above, there are innovative design solutions already available or in development. These alterations to our elders’ environments can not only alleviate stress and provide a solution but can also enrich seniors’ lives in unanticipated ways. Let’s explore!

Helpful Innovations in Design

Let us consider these arenas for design innovation:

  • Architecture
  • Mobility
  • Technology
  • Community Engagement


Since many of us will want to stay in our homes as long as possible rather than moving to a communal living situation, remodeling for our needs now and as we age requires careful thought. Considerations include safety and improved functionality without sacrificing aesthetics.

One architect was wise enough to ask some of his designers to live for a while in a retirement home to learn first-hand about the struggles faced by the residents every day. (Little). This type of research will become more important as our population ages and architects and designers are called upon to come up with viable design solutions.

Home Remodeling

A good starting point for home remodeling is to consider the features of a handicapped hotel room: grab bars in strategic locations, an open shower large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, perhaps a lower sink. How about also widening hallways for easier passage, and taking out walls to create an open and navigable space?

Lighting helps make a home more functional. Adding skylights or enlarging windows to improve light quality is a good first step. An older person’s home should be well lit along the walls, ceilings, hallways, and stairs. This provides unobstructed sight lines and improved safety.

And what about color? As we age, our eyesight does, too. And, the right colors used in a home can help an older person’s visibility. For examples, high contrast helps someone with poor eyesight see better. “A darker color on the bathroom walls allows for a senior to easily see the white toilet seat or white porcelain sink.” (Little)

As we know, color affects mood. To create feelings of calm and peace, try soft pinks and greens. Want to raise your energy level? Use red and orange. The right colors for an individual’s situation can make an important difference in that person’s quality of life.

New Construction

The considerations noted above for remodeling homes as we age apply to the design of new construction as well. An idea that is gaining in popularity is designing a home you can live in forever, with adaptable features you can modify as you age. The technical term is Universal Design or UD. Most UD elements use the principles of accessible, adaptable, ergonomic, and green design (Scott). This means the design:

  • Meets handicapped use standards, looks “normal,” and can be easily revamped for disabled use
  • Allows safe and effective interaction between people and things
  • Creates an environmentally friendly space


Some features of UD include:

  • Stair-free designs and no-step entries
  • Wider doorways
  • Open floor plans or great rooms
  • Walk-in bathtubs
  • Lower wall mirrors (Little)


In addition to designing and remodeling living spaces for enhanced mobility, more and more assistive devices and innovations in automobiles are being developed that will aid us as we age.


We’ve all been to the supermarket where a shopper who needs help getting around the store can select a motorized shopping cart for improved mobility and efficiency. And, we are probably familiar with the motorized personal scooters that many disabled people use in their homes and on their neighborhood streets. Here’s a new one we particularly like: Grandma’s Scooter:

It has three wheels for stability, a front pouch for storage, and the option to add a small motor and a seat. It folds up for easy storage, too. (Schwab)

And then there are all the automotive advances as we move ever closer to self-driving cars. Carol’s new 2017 Prius Prime warns her of cars or people behind her, and lights up a symbol in a side mirror when it is not safe to pass. It beeps shrilly if she drifts to one side and into another traffic lane. Do this too frequently for the car’s liking and it beeps, flashes lane lines on the large display screen, and pops up a graphic of a cup of coffee, suggesting Carol may be dozing off. Rather than an infringement on their privacy, this kind of Big Brother innovation is a support for senior citizens.


There are many senior housing options today. From gated retirement communities with a variety of housing, common facilities, and activities, to assisted living, nursing homes, and Alzheimer’s and dementia care locations, elders have a wide range of home choices. For many, staying on in the homes or apartments they love is desirable but individual limitations may make this impractical. Enter the Village.

A Village is a virtual community created to supplant the real villages of yesteryear where people tended to stay in their native towns, their families lived nearby, their neighbors and friends were available and everyone helped each other. An elder could count on regular assistance from people they’d known their whole lives for driving, home chores and repairs, gardening, dog walking, and social visits. They would have help cleaning out the garage, hanging paintings or taking down curtains, getting to church, to a movie, or going downtown for a civic parade.

A Village is a membership-based, non-profit, grass roots organization that originated in 2010 with the Beacon Hill Village in the Boston, Massachusetts area. Today there are more than 200 operating villages and more than 145 in development across the U.S. With a service model comprised of volunteers and approved professional providers, Villages are designed to bridge the help gap that often cannot be filled by family and friends. The social aspects of Village membership enable new friendships and more community involvement based on the member’s ability to participate. (


Many recent technological advances, from smartphones and tablets to the Ring Doorbell Pro that lets you see who is at your front door even when you are not at home, are of great help to senior citizens, assuming they are tech savvy enough to learn to use them. And, with so much research and development now in the robotics arena, there are some life-changing opportunities for our elders.


Meet the Ohmni Robot from Ohmni Labs. ( The robot was conceived to help elders and their families easily stay connected and share virtual companionship. Thuc Vu, the robot’s inventor, is based in Silicon Valley and wanted to connect with his grandmother in Vietnam who does not have a telephone. He sent her the robot with instructions for setting it up. Within a week she had given it a name and now she and her grandson cook together as he learns to make all his favorite Vietnamese dishes.

The Ohmni lives with the elder and is controlled by a remotely located family member using a computer, tablet, or smartphone. The family member’s face appears on the robot’s screen. Users can talk and share meals, holidays, quiet time, or anything they like to be together.

The robot is scaled to human size and its screen nods up and down, making it very approachable. The family member controlling the Ohmni can move it around the elder’s home, to the dinner table, living room, or wherever the elder is. The Ohmni parks itself at its’ re-charging station like a Roomba vacuum cleaner.

The Ohmni is currently in trials around the country. One is at The Heritage Downtown, a senior living facility in Walnut Creek, California where it has been very well received by the residents.

Make A Plan for Aging Well – a Process Case Study

With an enhanced awareness of products and resources designed to improve the lives of elders, how to we look ahead in our own lives to determine how and where we want to live as we age? What we can do to create that reality?

A good starting place can be with your own parents or other family members. Perhaps you were, or are now involved in helping them plan for their advanced years.

  • What goals have they established and how do they plan to reach them?
  • Are they being successful?
  • What obstacles present themselves?
  • What can you learn from their experiences?

Set Goals

Carol knew for some time that she wanted to move from her large two-story townhome of almost 20 years to a more compact, single-level home that she could remain in as she aged. After her parents passed away, she took some time to review their experiences, determined what she wanted her old age to look like, and set some goals:

  • Relocate to a quiet, safe neighborhood within her current city or an adjacent community
  • Downsize to a single-family, single-level home
  • Eliminate the homeowners’ association
  • Walk to shops and public transportation
  • Be close to the gym

House Requirements

  • Great room
  • Gas stove
  • 3 bedrooms, 2 baths
  • 2 car garage
  • Small yard
  • Move-in ready
  • Within price range

After many months of searching, Carol found a home that meets most of her requirements. The yard is huge, but the back gate opens onto a regional trail—an unexpected plus. As for move-in ready, well, looks are deceiving but three years later, everything is working out.

Community and In-home Services

Carol has a very small family, none of whom live nearby. She was excited to learn about the Village Concept several years ago and is now pleased to be instrumental in helping the Walnut Creek Village get up and running. She is enjoying the new friends she’s making, participating in Village events, and looks forward to using the member services it offers when she needs them. Meanwhile, she plans to continue her volunteer efforts to help her Village grow. Carol is the Volunteers Team Leader for the Walnut Creek Village ( currently moving into pilot phase in Walnut Creek, California.

Now It’s Your Turn

Regardless of your age or current location, it is not too early to begin thinking about the kind of life you want to live as you age. Here are some suggestions to help you get started. Consider:

  • Your health and that of your spouse, partner, other dependent family members
  • Geographical location(s) that appeal to you
  • The kind of community you would like to be part of – should it be an Age-Friendly designated city (WHO) (AARP)?
  • Transportation, walkability, shopping, recreation, medical resources, community events, religious venues, senior services
  • Supportive resources you are likely to need
  • Other important parts of your life that you want to maintain or enhance
  • New interests you would like to explore
  • Your finances and projected retirement income

It is helpful to capture your ideas about these and other components of daily living and to research answers to your questions as you plan. Here’s wishing you many happy, productive, and safe years!


Many people find that their ability to perform the tasks of daily living diminishes as they age. Elders may need help with chores and repairs around the house, driving, and other routine responsibilities. Rather than trying to improve the performance of these elders, an effective approach is to re-engineer their environment so they can be successful.

Tremendous advances are being made in products that can help our senior citizens remain independent. Design innovations in architecture, mobility aids, technology, and community engagement are making life easier and more enjoyable for our elders. From the Universal Design approach to home construction to mobility-enhancing scooters, to robots that connect friends and family, to a wide range of senior housing options, we can adjust their environments to accommodate their changing needs.

As we grow older and are less mobile it is easy to let ourselves disconnect from our communities and become increasingly isolated and lonely. To remain vibrant and involved and to plan to stay in the homes we love, it is wise to make a personal plan for aging well, long before it is needed. Evaluate the experiences of your parents and other older relatives as you consider what will be the right choices for yourself. Then set goals and plan to implement them.

There is much being written about aging well, aging in place, aging in community, and similar topics. Start your research now and you will reap the benefits of living the second half of your life as you planned.

Roger Addison & Carol Haig

Roger Addison & Carol Haig

Roger Addison has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Baylor and is Certified in Performance Improvement Technologies (CPT). He is the co-author of Performance Architecture and an internationally respected performance improvement consultant. He is the founder and Chief Performance Officer of Addison Consulting. Previously he was the Senior Director of Human Performance Improvement for the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) where he was responsible for educational programs and implementing performance improvement systems. Carol Haig is a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) and has more than 30 years of multi-industry experience partnering with organizations to improve their employees' performance. Carol is known for her superior skills in project management, analysis and problem/opportunity identification, and instructional design and facilitation. She has consulted with executives and line managers, established and managed training departments, trained trainers, written for professional publications and mentored performance consultants. She is co-author of Performance Architecture.


  1. Claude Patou says

    Now, imagine structured enterprise for successful aging with 50 to 70 y.o. because think they still work in factories, offices, plants, shops.
    Now, imagine thought enterprise for successful and happy technology evolving, without competencies and talents losses.

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