How Color and Design Affect Environments for the Aging

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Senior citizens are the fastest-growing segment of the population, and the Baby Boomer generation is expected to grow to 88 million by 2050. Quality of life remains a paramount goal for the aging population, and the Harvard Graduate School of Housing Studies points to housing as the lynchpin of well-being.
When used mindfully, color selection and placement can play a powerful role in helping older individuals to be more independent and comfortable in their living spaces. PHOTOS COURTESY OF BENJAMIN MOORE
Design professionals have a unique opportunity to improve quality of life in senior-care environments; however, designing these spaces goes beyond pleasing aesthetics alone. Aging and diseases can affect many aspects of daily life that depend on mobility, independence and social involvement, specifically vision and color perception. Therefore, designers are challenged with creating spaces that are functional, healthy and safe, while encouraging exploration, movement and social interaction.


Vision is a complex process that requires every part of the human eye to play a specific role. As such, the health and age of the eye has a huge impact on color perception. The health of the eye can deteriorate from conditions and diseases such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. These conditions can impair color perception, commonly cause blurred or cloudy vision and can lead to partial or complete blindness in some cases.
A common condition afflicting the aging population is dementia, which is not a specific disease but is categorized as a chronic disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease. Characterized by a slow decline of cognitive disorders, dementia symptoms include impairment of communication, memory, focus, object recognition, reasoning and visual perception. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, currently affecting more than five million Americans. The Alzheimer’s Association projects the prevalence of the disease will triple between now and 2050. As the segment continues to grow, so does the need to address home and living facility environments for these individuals.
For adults living with dementia, vision changes in several ways. Complex patterns in design become confusing, distracting and difficult to interpret. For example, bold stripes may look like they are moving, and a pattern of white dots on a dark background can look like specks that need to be cleaned up. Floor patterns such as dark or repeating circles can be misinterpreted for holes or pools of water. People with dementia eventually lose the ability to judge depth, and high color contrast is required to help them discern one object from another.
A floor or wall pattern featuring bold stripes might not be the best choice for a person living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, as impaired vision may cause them to perceive movement in the surface.
Even in the absence of disease, declining vision is a general symptom of aging, and many physiological changes result from the thickening and yellowing of the lens that occurs with age. As people mature, they may experience a reduction in the ability to perceive contrast, making it difficult to differentiate between subtle changes in the environment, such as carpeting and steps; reduction in the perceived saturation or vividness of colors; and reduced ability to discriminate hues in certain color families.


The aging population presents vast societal challenges for ensuring that infrastructures can support the needs of older people, while enabling them to live healthy, independent and productive lives. In order for design professionals to accommodate these needs in their spaces, the first step is to understand the alternatives for the elderly and how each one impacts daily life. The three main housing options are:

  • Independent Living – similar to apartment-living but with maintenance-free housing, social activities and prepared meals. Minor assistance is provided to residents, as needed.
  • Assisted Living – facilities are similar to independent living communities, but with increased assistance for residents in the areas of bathing, dressing and distributing medications.
  • Aging in Place – staying in one’s home for as long as possible, which provides the advantages of familiarity with the environment and community.
A study conducted by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) reported that one in four homeowners age 35 and older are planning to make modifications to their existing homes to accommodate an aging parent or spouse in anticipation of their future needs. The three modifications identified in the study included improving access by widening doors and halls, installing grab bars where needed to aid with independence and mobility, and increasing the quantity and quality of lighting.


Paint colors on doors and window frames should contrast from the walls and other furnishings so they stand out to make navigation easier and help identify the room’s purpose. Flat finishes reduce problems associated with glare.
Whether homeowners are modifying existing rooms or designers are advising independent- or assisted-living communities, painting is an easier and more cost-efficient way to redesign the environment. If used purposefully, color is a powerful tool that can not only improve design aesthetics, but also play a role in helping older individuals be more independent and comfortable in their living spaces.
Aging eyes lose the ability to discriminate pale colors, making yellows and other pastels appear white. They are also unable to differentiate shades of blue, green and purple as these cooler colors can read gray. Further, colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel or those that are close in lightness or darkness are harder to discern. People with color deficiencies are best able to perceive bright colors at the warm end of the spectrum such as reds and oranges.
More so than color selection, color contrast is the most important design aspect to emphasize. When assessing the contrast of colors to help influence color choice, consider the Light Reflectance Value (LRV) for each hue. LRV is the total quantity of visible and usable light reflected by a surface at all wavelengths and in all directions. This tool is used to determine how much light a color reflects and absorbs. Colors with an LRV higher than 50 percent — such as whites, light grays and pale hues — will be lighter and reflect more light back into the room; these work well for larger rooms where the intention is to increase brightness. Colors with an LRV falling below 50 percent — such as browns, blue-blacks, reds and more saturated colors — will tend to be darker and absorb more light and can be used to highlight key features. Referencing each color’s LRV, often available on either the manufacturer’s fan deck or its website, will help to create strong contrasts that will be easily discernible for those with impaired vision.
Incorporating contrast into design involves three components: contrast of hue; contrast of value, or the lightness and darkness of the same color; and the contrast of cool colors against warm colors. As design professionals evaluate the visual adjustments necessary in every space, they should incorporate color and contrast to highlight elements in the space and to facilitate navigation and orientation.
When working to highlight different elements in the space, the intention should be to make them more visible for the resident. Generally, doors, frames and lightswitch covers should be painted in contrast from the walls so they are easier to see. In bedrooms, ensure that the wall color behind the bed is different enough from the headboard to avoid the two blending together.
If an elderly person has lost the ability to judge depth, color contrast can be used to help him or her discern one object from another. In bedrooms, for example, the paint selection for the wall behind a bed should ensure that the headboard stands out to help orient the resident.
The concept of highlighting should also be implemented in the dining, kitchen and living areas. Beyond ensuring that the walls and doors can easily be distinguished from one another, any furniture and furnishings should also stand out. While changing these larger items is cost-prohibitive, repainting the walls may be a more economical approach. Further, contrasting place settings against the table will allow for more comfortable dining experiences.
Bathrooms can present many hazards, even for those without compromised color perception, especially when used late at night. All-white or neutral-toned bathrooms are among the more common design choices as they offer the cleanest look, but they are very difficult for an elderly person to navigate. Toilets, sinks and bathtubs should stand out, which can be done by painting a bold color behind them or placing colored rugs underneath them.
Any paths of travel such as staircases and hallways, in both private homes and facilities, should be designed with the highest safety standards in mind. In the aging population, a lack of confidence in physical ability or fear of falling can be immobilizing. A better quality of life for this segment relies on independence, belonging, confidence, fulfillment and physical health. Thus, it is critical to design spaces that enable individuals to navigate independently, which ultimately builds confidence and increases opportunities for meaningful social interaction in the common areas these pathways lead to.
Staircases should be well lit during all hours of the day and night with the edges of steps clearly identified, using either light or a variance in color. In longer hallways, consider the need for resting spots and incorporate handrails to encourage forward movement. While many facilities typically default to white or neutral tones, the absence of color in a patient corridor can create a visual hazard for aging eyes. Therefore, wall colors should be different from handrails and floor colors to promote easier navigation.
Despite being able to successfully navigate a hallway, people can become disoriented upon arriving at the destination. Orientation within a space can be challenging for the elderly, particularly for those who suffer from dementia. To combat any confusion, designers should incorporate visual environmental clues that help make sense of the setting and communicate the purpose of the room. This can be done by using color to highlight defining features in the space, such as the appliances in a kitchen or the TV wall in a media room. Doing so will help draw the eye to hints that help a person recognize their surroundings and prevent the features of the room from blending together.


Contrast also works well on staircases to keep the edges of steps clearly defined. Ensuring that handrails are a different color than the walls also aids in navigation and helps encourage forward movement.
Equally as important as color and contrast is the quality of materials and type of paint used. A key consideration for products used in-home or in a facility is their impact on the indoor environment. Given that residents will either remain in the building or need to return to the space shortly after application, products used should minimize impact on indoor air quality. To address these concerns, paint manufacturers have developed premium paints that are zero-VOC1 and zero-emissions (measured at four hours after application).2
As people age, the pupils become smaller and less responsive to variations in light. It becomes more difficult to see well in dim light, and glare becomes less tolerable because the pupil is not able to adapt to changes in light. Thus, shiny floors, reflective countertops and glossy wall finishes can produce enough glare that is nearly blinding for the elderly. Flat, matte or eggshell finishes are the best alternatives in environments for the aging.
Not only does sheen help achieve a certain aesthetic, but it also adds performance properties to the paint. Coatings must be durable enough to withstand high-traffic environments due to the foot traffic of residents and staff, the use of wheelchairs and other assistive devices, and the frequent movement of equipment. Today’s high-quality paints have scrub- and stain-resistant qualities that make them ideal for healthcare environments.
People are living longer and the number of senior citizens in America will continue to grow. As the generations age, it will become increasingly more important for design professionals to create accommodating spaces that satisfy the needs of the population and, more importantly, contribute to improving their overall quality of life.

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