Building designs for an ageing population

DESIGNrc''Paul Chamberlain
DESIGNrc''Paul Chamberlain
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SHEFFIELDERS are living longer and healthier lives than ever before.

A baby born in Sheffield can be expected to live 78 years and one month – the oldest of any city outside London.



In the UK on the whole average life expectancy has risen from 72 to 80 in the last 30 years. Indeed, the population of elderly people is growing.

But are these longer lives happy lives? And are we engaging with our ageing population?

These are the questions that led Paul Chamberlain, professor of design and head of the Art And Design Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam, to head a major project looking at the lives of Sheffield’s elderly people and how society is dealing with this expanding demographic.

Known as Engaging Design, the project looks at how the lives of Britain’s elderly people can be improved through design.



“It was a couple of years ago that I became interested in the impact of an ageing population and how the provisions for elderly people are extremely poor. The huge demographic shift towards a population with a greater number of elderly people – thanks to medical advances – is a good thing but it’s useless unless we give elderly people a better quality of life.”

And it’s this that inspired Paul’s project. “I started wondering how design could help support people’s quality of life.”

Paul and his team spent months speaking with Sheffield pensioners as part of its research and formed a think-tank group of elderly people in Deepcar. “We asked them to bring in an object they really need at home but whose design didn’t suit them.”

One of the issues that crop up during discussions was how badly bathrooms are designed for elderly people: “The bathroom is somewhere that’s fun when you’re a kid, it’s relaxing when you’re an adult but for elderly people it can be daunting and presents some of the biggest physical problems. Bathroom design for elderly people is also extremely undignifying, with those awful plastic toilet seats that sit on the toilet.”



Paul believes that design is central to the quality of life, and therefore wellbeing of elderly people.

“We employed a team of elderly people to talk with other elderly people in Sheffield to come up with ideas and suggestions for a ‘future bathroom’ – we’ve already built a prototype bathroom for elderly people.”

Sheffield Hallam has also teamed up with Ideal Standard bathroom manufacturers, who are looking to develop the ‘future bathroom’ for older people based on Paul’s research.

“There is no reason why a bathroom for elderly people can’t be a nice attractive bathroom.”

But the project’s not just about design. It’s spin-off research, Engaging, looks at the ways in which various elderly Sheffielders experience being old. “We don’t want to assume that young people are active and old people are decrepit. This isn’t the case.”

Indeed one of Paul’s elderly group members, Anne Eckford, 73, completed a sponsored zip-lining mission in Hillsorough at the age of 71, raising more than £400 for charity. She said: “I’ve always been an adventurous person and there are still things that I would really like to do but can’t physically do. Then I saw this advert for the Zip Wire Challenge for the Children’s Hospital charity and I thought, I’ve always wanted to do that. So I sent my application form in and did it! I got £435 from sponsorship just for zipping along over Sheffield Wednesday football ground. It was really good. I’d do it again.”

Another of Paul’s case studies, who wouldn’t give their name, said that being elderly “Is the start of life.”

Anne’s story challenges the perception that elderly people are often ‘past it’ or incapable of contributing to society. We can, in fact, benefit hugely from an experienced, knowledgable population.

Sheffield now has the healthiest and longest-living elderly populations out of the UK’s cities outside of London. The only problem is our perception of the elderly and the provisions we make to ensure that their lives aren’t just long, but happy too.

As Paul says, it’s useless living longer if your quality of life is poor. God speed the ‘future bathroom.’