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Designing for Age-Related Changes Among Older Adults

March 2015
Executive Summary
The Center For Health Design

Development Through the Lifespan

In the field of developmental psychology, people are thought to pass through a series of life stages from infancy to old age. The abilities and needs of people at these different stages vary greatly. Childhood is a time of growth and development in sensory, cognitive, social, and physical abilities, while older adults can experience a decline in abilities and functions. These changes may be due to the aging process and/or limitations resulting from chronic disease.

Declines in strength, range of motion, dexterity, and mobility are common age-related changes among older adults. Providing chairs with high seats and strong arms, grab bars in bathrooms, lever faucet and door handles, and adequate space for maneuvering  assistive devices are design strategies that can help compensate for age-related physical changes.

In 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 36% of people aged 65 and over reported at least one type of disability (e.g., difficulty in hearing, vision, cognition, ambulation, self-care, or independent living) (He & Larsen, 2014). The most common disability was difficulty walking or climbing (reported by two-thirds of respondents). 

Environmental Stress 

Environmental stress occurs when there is an imbalance between environmental demands and an individual’s ability to respond. Older adults may be more easily overwhelmed by the environment as a result of sensory-motor and cognitive losses associated with aging. 

Careful design of the physical environment can help compensate for many of the age-related changes older adults experience. The tables that follow summarize common changes that occur with aging and offer design strategies that can help older adults maximize independence.



Successful design depends on a good fit between the person and the environment. Understanding age-related changes in physical and sensory abilities is an essential step in designing appropriate spaces for older adults.

Related References


Brawley, E. (2006). Design innovations for aging and Alzheimer’s: Creating caring environments. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Christenson, M. (1990). Aging in the designed environment. London: Haworth Press.

He, W., & Larsen, L. (2014). Older Americans with a disability: 2008-2012. American Community Survey Reports (ACS-29). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Parke, B. (2007). Physical design dimension of an elder friendly hospital: An evidence-based practice review undertaken for the Vancouver Island Health Authority. Vancouver, BC: University of Victoria, Centre on Aging.

Peterson, M. (1998). Universal kitchen and bathroom planning: Design that adapts to people. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Professional Publishers.

Wylde, M. (1994). Building for a lifetime: The design and construction of fully accessible homes. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press.

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