When research meets care

Freedom of choice and stimulation, the right lighting and colour. Researchers know what’s required of a physical care environment to ensure the well-being of the elderly. Researcher Helle Wijk explains the most important findings – and why they seldom become reality.

We are growing older. And the need for care environments for the elderly is unlikely to diminish. But how should they be designed to give us the good quality of life we deserve in our twilight years? Helle Wijk, professor of nursing at the University of Gothenburg and visiting professor of healthcare architecture at Chalmers University has been researching this subject for many years. Over the past 25 years, a lot has happened in research, she says. “The healthcare and architecture sciences are currently conducting research together, both nationally and internationally. That says a lot about how far we’ve come. Furthermore, providers of finance are investing more in this kind of research, and municipalities have become more aware of the need for research on the spaces they provide.”

A person-centred and homely care environment creates the best conditions for well-being, according to Helle Wijk. In her 2001 thesis, she showed how colour can be used to improve care environments for the elderly. “As we grow older, our sight and ability to perceive contrasts deteriorate. Colour codes and contrasts can be used to trigger recognition, encourage use and define the space.” Lighting is another factor. The correct lighting can make it easier for the elderly to see the food on their plate or read the newspaper.

Elderly people may also find it difficult to walk far and find their way, especially at night. That’s why care homes need to be kept small in size, without overly long distances. “The distance between the bedroom and the bathroom is an important point, as this is where many falls occur. In a good physical care environment, you shouldn't need to wander around on unsteady legs in the dark, searching for the bathroom.”

A well-designed care environment for the elderly also means freedom of choice for the users, Helle Wijk emphasises. This could involve room for your own furniture, as well as opportunities for both privacy and social interaction. “Elderly people are individuals with different needs, just like you and me. Sometimes you may feel like eating with others, but other times you don’t. Individual easy chairs can be placed for those who want to read in peace and quiet, for example, and sofa groups for those who feel like socialising.”

So how well-designed are our care homes?

"It’s very varied. Many were built in the 1970s and 80s, like small hospitals with long corridors and rooms. There are also fantastic examples built later on, where people have invested in care homes with a homely feel in both the interior and exterior spaces.”

What can we say about the current state of outdoor spaces for the elderly?

“All too often, care homes have no outdoor space at all, and if they do have one, they’re difficult to access or offer no shelter from the sun and wind. Everyone should have access to good outdoor spaces, regardless of age.”

What can we do better for the future?

“It would be a good start to listen more to the views of the elderly. Participatory design – actively involving users and stakeholders in the design process – has been applied for a long time in research. It also needs to be utilised in municipal healthcare and nursing. Generally speaking, the implementation of research findings takes far too long.”

Why do you think that’s the case?

“There’s been too little dialogue between academia, healthcare and nursing. Now we need to make sure that all the research we have also gets put into practice – through collaboration with society, the business community, politicians and the media.”

“Elderly people are individuals with different needs, just like you and me.”

Helle Wijk, professor of nursing and healthcare architecture

6 tips for better care homes


Freedom of choice and stimulation

Variation in design is just as important in the outdoor space as the indoor space.


Use colour contrasts and codes

They make navigation easier and prevent accidents.


Adjust the lighting

Important for both safety and quality of life.


Furniture at the right height

It should be easy to sit down and stand up.


Let the elderly have a say in the design

The users’ own views should be a key starting point.


Adapt the outdoor space

It should be easily accessible and safe, varied, and offer shelter from the sun and wind.