One day, we’ll all be seniors: homes at the heart of the demographic transition

If it is to meet the new challenges of the demographic transition, the construction industry must envision and invent increasingly versatile materials! Smart, safe and designed for every age of life, the chameleon home makes a positive contribution to helping people stay in their own homes.
  • Delivering a successful demographic transition

We hear a lot about the ecological and energy transitions, which challenge the relationships we have with sustainable development... but very little or nothing about the demographic transition. And yet, we’re now witnessing the ‘seniorization’ of society worldwide, with the sole exception of Africa, which still seems to fall outside this trend. If we look forward just a small distance into the future, there will be more people aged 65 and up in the USA than under-18s by 2035, according to a projection based on the most recent census. On the other side of the Atlantic, France expects to see the beginning of this reversal as early as 2030, followed by a quadrupling in the number of people aged over 80 by 2050. 

Transitioning to "Silver homes"

This long-life society clearly poses new challenges in terms of health and dependency care. What will be the best way of helping our elders? What will be the best way of supporting home care?

“The ecological and demographic transitions are inextricably linked," says Serge Guérin, a Sociologist specializing in aging. “So we must take advantage of the ecological transition to adapt homes and introduce new ways of doing things.” So sustainable construction means beginning with a global overview of population aging and its consequences on housing. “It would be a mistake to look at the ‘silver home’ concept purely in terms of accessibility,” explains Jean-Philippe Arnoux, VP Silver Economy and Accessibility at Saint-Gobain Distribution Bâtiment France. “Every aspect must be included, from comfort and well-being to home safety.” And it's up to the construction industry to lead by example. “Anticipating the demographic transition means envisioning and designing versatile materials that adapt to the needs of people as they age. I’m thinking here particularly about Concept'care by Lapeyre, the first prefabricated and reversible bathroom,” continues Jean-Philippe Arnoux.

And Placo has developed Habito®, a new kind of plasterboard that looks completely standard at first glance. But Habito® has been designed to withstand the impacts of everyday life, and is distinctive for its exceptional strength and stability. These qualities make it an ideal material for supporting many types of load, including the heavyweight handrails and grab rails used as mobility aids. “We need to work on product versatility so that they remain fit for purpose when needs change in the future,” summarizes Jean-Philippe Arnoux. So Lapeyre has designed an entire range of mobile kitchen furniture, such as the Mobilo unit, whose internal storage fittings hinge down towards the user. The Twister, Corner and Le Mans styles offer plenty of storage space within easy reach, but eliminate the need for bending down. So ideal for anyone with reduced mobility! In other words, ‘chameleon’ solutions are emerging for every part of the home, inside and out. An AMD-friendly lamp that helps elderly users see more clearly, an outdoor floor covering that helps prevent falls by draining much more effectively than traditional surfaces... and many more.

New technologies to the rescue

Unsurprisingly, new technologies have also made their way into the home environment to improve comfort levels for seniors and make their homes safer. Providers of these technologies are now persuading real-estate developers and social landlords to install them as original equipment in new homes. The Smarthab telecare box is an excellent example. This connected smart box controls an entire home automation system, but also communicates with care staff if any issues or loss of consciousness is detected by the sensors and software.

Other areas of development are also moving ahead, many of them focusing on making life easier for caregivers, like an exoskeleton designed to help with lifting and lowering those unable to do so themselves. And there are even robotic caregivers, which some believe could keep seniors company, at the same time as providing a telepresence function. 

Home sharing and sheltered communities

At the same time as requiring us to think again about the homes we live in, the demographic transition also poses multiple urban challenges. "How do we adapt mobility to suit the needs of seniors? And how about services?” muses Serge Guérin.  Once again, the construction industry must deliver a paradigm change with the introduction of new urban models to facilitate the inclusion of seniors in the city. There are many initiatives underway, including home sharing and small sheltered communities designed to bring seniors together in a friendly environment. 

The social inclusion of seniors also involves intergenerational housing, which aims to break down barriers by making it possible for seniors, students and families live together in the same community. “This model requires an obvious effort in terms of acoustic transmission, due to the very different paces of life involved,” says Jean-Philippe Arnoux. “So it’s up to us as professionals to adapt our materials to facilitate communal living in terms of comfort and noise levels.” This idea is gaining traction, and intergenerational living appears to have a promising future. In the USA, Rancho Mission Viejo welcomes seniors and families, and features communal spaces that everyone can use, but also spaces reserved for seniors, such as the pool, which respects their need for peace and quiet away from splashing children!

“It's all about creating sustainable housing for seniors,” concludes Serge Guérin. “So there's a whole new model waiting to be invented!” Right now, momentum seems to be building all around the world. 

In any event, the Silver Home concept invites us to move away from the binary vision of ‘retirement home only’ or ‘own home only’ by offering an intermediate solution that falls somewhere between home sharing, access to care and concierge services. This new intermediate solution will be designed around materials with superpowers to help people stay in their own homes for longer, and push back the advancing years!

Credits: Halfpoint/Shutterstock; Toa55/Shutterstock