by James Heroux
In Voltaire’s “Candide,” realization that “we must cultivate our own garden” is one that we all arrive at as we get older. Aging does not change our desire to be independent, nor does it lessen our appreciation of contact with others and nature, and it might even heighten our need to engage with the community and the landscape.
The pandemic of 2020 has revealed how separation affects us physically, psychologically, and spiritually and how being in, or looking at, the landscape has become critical to our health. In fact, the Wall Street Journal published an article in February of this year asking the question, “Will two hours in the park become the next 10,000 steps?”
At some point in our lives, most of us will require assistance negotiating our living environment. This highlights two things we fear most: loss of mobility and social isolation. As designers, it is imperative that we keep these considerations in mind when tasked to provide thoughtfully programmed, spatially well-proportioned, and physically safe environments for seniors.
In a post-pandemic world, designing for an older population will require the integration of architectural design and the outdoor realm for residents, caregivers, and their families. A thoughtful design, with visual access to the landscape and a physical means of engaging it, promises both real and perceived benefits.
Landscape architects work with health care providers, facilities directors, design teams, and residents early in the design process to develop a clear understanding of the program needs of seniors. For example, as we get older, wayfinding can sometimes be confusing. Landscape architects provide spatial planning to provide benchmarks that are familiar, allowing residents to recognize and remember where they have been while finding sanctuary in a courtyard, overlook, or terrace. It is important that connections to the outdoor realm are intuitive and easy to negotiate.
Sight lines can be taken advantage of to draw people into spaces. This is accomplished by making visual connections with tree-lined walkways, pergola covered passageways, or shade covered overlooks where residents can visit with family members, gather with their community, or simply sit and watch the theater of the world in a safe environment.
Programmed outdoor terraces could include a variety of seating opportunities, fireplaces, dining areas, grill stations, games such as bocce and shuffleboard, and media interface. Providing these amenities to residents offers plenty of opportunities to socialize with guests, visitors, the staff, and with the greater community.
Garden spaces designed with a therapeutic approach could contain flower beds to supply color for interior spaces and rooms; kitchen gardens that not only provide fresh herbs and vegetables but also allow for educational opportunities; and pathways for physical activity and contact with members of the senior living community. Accessible gardens present opportunities for residents to socialize and be physically active through the cultivation and maintenance of plants.
Although 2020 was filled with sorrow, the pandemic allowed us to see in real time how the outdoor realm can sooth our minds, provide opportunities for reflection, and a be source for healing.
James Heroux, ASLA, PLA is principal at Copley Wolff Design Group.