Senior couple sitting outdoors

Age-Friendly Environments for Older Adults

By Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka, PhD

As we seek to maintain active and involved lives, what do we wish for?

Years of training in architecture prepared me to listen to older clients and explore together with them their changing physical and emotional needs as they prepared to redesign their dwellings. I learned about the changes that take place in the body as we get older. I understood, theoretically, that there were physical barriers that would require some adjustments to create a livable, healthy and safe environment for older adults.

What I was not prepared for, mentally, was that one day I would be my own client. I kept asking: was I really already there? I know, through my own experiences, that my clients knew what was best for them, as I do now. However, it has taken longer for this life change to build enough momentum to enter into the public’s awareness.  I first heard the term Friendly Environments about 40 years ago, when I was in my twenties, and the term Age-Friendly Communities for Seniors about 10 years ago. As I grew older, my intellectual understanding of what getting older meant turned into a personal journey of discovery.

So what do we need generally from our physical and social environments? The World Health Organization (WHO) came up with ideas from a survey on what seniors want. According to the survey, seniors want secure buildings, pleasant and accessible outdoor spaces, public transportation and affordable housing. In a more personal way, they want social inclusion and respect, opportunities for employment, support from the community and health services geared to older people’s needs. The survey revealed that seniors want to participate in leisure, social, cultural and spiritual activities with people of all ages and cultures.

Those findings cover a full range of how seniors would like to see their world improved. We live longer and healthier and we seek to live interesting and rich lives. To accommodate the shift in living longer and achieving a better quality of life, municipalities around BC began making plans to become age-friendly communities: towns such as Vernon, North Vancouver, West Vancouver and New Westminster. Leaders held town meetings, where senior citizens were asked to express their ideas about what would improve the quality of life where they lived. I do not include care facilities in this article; I’ll only discuss my own experiences as a baby boomer living in several locations. Here are some suggestions using the indoors, outdoors, social encounters and seniors’ activities.

For example, in one of my dwellings, I started to prepare for the time when mobility should become a concern. To make my environment safer and more convenient, I removed a bathtub and converted it to a larger shower that allows easy access. There were all kinds of wonderful and expensive ideas on the market, but I opted for a simple shower with a built-in low edge on the floor so water would not escape. I installed a shower curtain that’s easy to clean and if I lost my balance, I would fall against fabric and not against a confined glass partition. I also lowered the height of the counters in the bathrooms and kitchen slightly as my height started to shrink. Where possible, I avoided indoor stairs.

For improvements in the outdoors, I would like to see benches in parks, shopping malls and main streets, places where shopping is a major activity. A great example that solved this concern is 30th Avenue in downtown Vernon. New benches installed there make my strolls along the main street more pleasant and provide an incentive to leave the apartment and go for walks.

A sensitive issue that is not spoken much about is the need for bathroom access, especially as we get older. Anyone who needs to use a bathroom often knows that any outing needs careful planning to be sure of bathroom availability. I am amazed at commercial establishments that do not allow the use of their bathroom facilities. This whole issue needs some serious rethinking on a national level with changes to building codes and town planning.

How about changes in the attitudes of drivers as we cross the street, perhaps moving a little more slowly than we used to? Clear and loud instructions everywhere would help as we may lose our hearing. It would be lovely to feel respected and have our opinions and responses taken seriously. We may look older and think differently but life experience offers real benefits that society can profit from.

When it comes to social activities, I would like to see an activity centre nearby that is open to all ages, with activity programs that allow interaction across all ages with separate senior programs as well. A centre like this needs to be designed architecturally and reflect the improvements that seniors preferred in the WHO survey. A good starting point is the recreation complex in West Vancouver. The site includes a seniors’ activity centre, which is one of the best in Canada, adjacent to a large and impressive public recreation centre; it is humming with activity. However, the seniors’ activity building appears to attract only older people, while the younger generation congregates in their relatively new section of the complex. Although the architect was aware of the need to make the complex accessible to all, the philosophical approach of keeping services separate needs to be changed to encourage integration and collaboration. Still, a balance between separate and common activities in shared space needs to be addressed.

Although the WHO survey found an expressed desire for interaction between older adults and younger people, I find there is still plenty of resistance to change within the very old population and local authorities, especially in smaller towns in rural BC. While  BC’s  provincial government is making efforts “to become more accessible and inclusive for older people” and offers ways to make our communities more age-friendly, the changes are slow to come and we need to speak up to make them happen where they count.

For more information check BC Seniors’ Guide or their website:

Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka, PhD, lives in Vernon. She conceived and developed the award-winning Creative Expression Activities Program for seniors with dementia. She continues to deliver presentations and workshops in the US, Canada, Israel, and Europe. Dalia founded the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care in British Columbia and is the moving force behind the annual international conferences and workshops on creative expression, communication, and dementia (CECD). Dalia can be reached at

*Reprint from our Senior 2015 Issue

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