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.
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 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.