Entering the next phase of life
A society should be judged on how it looks after the most vulnerable members of its community. This means that when it comes to the construction of buildings targeted at the senior members of our community, nothing but the most rigorous and highest of standards is appropriate.
One of the first things to get right is access and egress. With the elderly or senior members of our community there are many considerations that have to be addressed when designing access solutions through a building. These include but are not limited to physical infirmity, mental infirmity, emergency egress and security.
But first some figures.
It’s no secret by now that Australia’s population is ageing. The latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) state that in 2016 around 3.7 million Australians (15 percent of the population) were aged 65 and over. This is expected to grow to 8.7 million (22 percent) by 2056. All of this has major ramifications for our built environment.
Aged care is one of the fastest growing markets in Australia. For just 2017/18 alone 9911 new places were approved for building, and it’s expected that this number will only grow. But it’s not just about tailor made retirement homes. The market includes full-care care facilities, nursing homes, assisted living and, indeed, private spaces for people who are keen to remain in their own homes as they age.
Because it must be remembered that, while half of the older people in the AIHW’s figures had some degree of disability, three-quarters reported their health as good, very good or excellent. In 2014-15 two in three older Australians did not use aged care services, but this doesn’t mean that their particular requirements shouldn’t be factored into the places where they live… and work – the proportion of older Australians participating in the labour force doubled between 2000 and 2015 (from six percent to 13 percent).
So aged care living arrangements cross the spectrum, but each space has its own requirements and considerations when it comes to access solutions.
Full care and assisted living environments
On 18 November 2011, 11 residents died when a fire at a nursing home in Quakers Hill in New South Wales was deliberately lit by a drug dependent nurse attempting to cover up his theft of prescription drugs. Following the enquiry the NSW deputy coroner, Hugh Dillon, made several recommendations, including that doors and corridors in nursing homes should be constructed to facilitate the rapid movement of beds in emergencies. It was found that one fire exit was too narrow for beds to be wheeled through.
The tragedy exemplified the worst case scenario – two or three workers attempting to evacuate scores of people of varying degrees of mobility in the middle of the night.
Clearly access and egress control in aged care facilities isn’t just important, it can be a matter of life and death.
One of the first things to take into consideration when specifying doors on such a project is the opening force required to use the doors. For frail members of the community, an extra kilo in force could be the difference between them being able to open the door or not. It’s really a question of going beyond compliance and thinking about the unique requirements of the end users of the doors.
Performance isn’t the only consideration, however. These are people’s living environments, their homes, and usage of such elements as doors and windows will reflect how residents interact with the space around them on a daily basis. Today, we still see antiquated designs in aged care facilities, perhaps with door closers that have been disconnected as they were too heavy to use.
To counteract this dangerous practice, the installation of free swing technology is advisable. When powered, these door closers disengage and require only absolute minimum force to open. But in a fire or smoke situation, a signal from the fire indicator panel will terminate power to the unit thus rendering the door closer active and cycling the door to its closed position.
All aged care facilities are now classed as 9A or 9C buildings by the National Construction Code, which means they must have provision of escape, fire walls and fire containment. Ease of operation is covered by AS1428.1, the design for access and mobility standard in public buildings. All new construction work in this typology must be compliant with this standard, which stipulates that accessibility is provided to everyone within 90 percent of the population. When this rule is applied to door handles and other door furniture, it means that even if the user’s grip is no longer strong, they are still able to operate the handle, while carers have the quickest and easiest access as required.
Dementia affected residents
Full-care environments are also increasingly likely to house people who are unable to make as many decisions for themselves. Current predictions point to 400,000 Australians living with some form of dementia, rising to over double that by 2050. Access control for this section of the population is an evolving issue, but today we are seeing more examples of residents being issued with transponders in wristbands, on lanyards or in their pockets that interact with receivers on doors to ensure that wearers/carriers are restricted from entering unsafe or private areas.
People who wish to age in place face their own particular challenges in the egress and access arena, not the least of which is making the building accessible to visitors, not just family and friends, but the carers, cleaners, Meals on Wheels staff and district nurses who need to make regular calls to check on their well-being or provide essential services. To facilitate this in a domestic setting, a solution is an electronic digital door lock, which can be set with a specific time when its particular code or access credentials will work. The authorised visitor is able to enter when expected without the resident having to get up and answer the doorbell, but security is maintained otherwise.
As our ageing population grows exponentially, the aforementioned and other solutions are already in place to ensure that the built environment is prepared to accommodate it. But agile and innovative solutions will need to be further developed so that nobody is left behind. And tragedies like Quakers Hill never happen again.