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Briefing Paper

Housing for the elderly - a guide to best practice
Guy Kasier
E&D Systems
July 2009

Home of the Future

Source illustration: Welhops

Home of the Future

1. Introduction

A WelHops study some years ago assessed the needs of the elderly regarding the
buildings and surroundings in which they wish to live. Still as relevant today as it was
when it was carried out, this study ran from May 2005 to September 2007 as part of a
European INTERREG IIIC project. Taking part were partners from Italy, Sweden, the
UK, Spain, and Hungary.

The project objectives were to:

 Develop a set of recommendations for the planning of a wide range of living
accommodation for the elderly.
 Create an Internet portal containing analyses, reports and accepted best
 Set up a network of experts.
 By applying the above ensure the provision of optimal accommodation
solutions for the elderly who want to keep on living independently at home
for longer.

The first step was to categorise the available housing units for the aged found in the
partner countries and in Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. These
were then analysed and all the items were evaluated to be ranked on a scale of
―good‖ to ―worse‖. The recommendations for building new housing for the elderly and
for the renovation of existing housing extracted from this assessment were laid down
as guidelines and tested in practice in three pilot projects.

The results showed that the elderly are able to live independently, at home for longer;
this can give them a higher quality of life and sense of well-being; it can also
significantly decrease the sense of being institutionalised and over-dependent. A
number of additional factors were noted – people felt that their particular needs were
being addressed and this made them feel more independent and better about
themselves; greater exchange in the neighbourhood meant that loneliness was less
of an issue.

This project’s main report has become a practical and useful guide that includes
many recommendations on how to successfully draw up plans for new buildings or
for renovating existing buildings for the aged. It comes in four parts:

Section A: The home

Section B: The building in addition to the home
Section C: Spaces pertaining to the outside of the building
Section D: Urban context

This article focuses the recommendations regarding electrical installations and some
technical innovations. Throughout, any thoughts and comments about the report are
differentiated by being highlighted.

Housing for the elderly—a guide to best practice

2. The home

Figure 1:
Several examples of the interior layout of the housing unit. (Illustration source: WelHops)

In this section some 19 groups of recommendations are covered ranging from

household security, to comfort, to keeping the place clean and keeping in touch with
the outside world.

Home of the Future

Easy identification of the entrance to the housing unit

 The entrance to the housing unit should be situated in an area which
has sufficient lighting, both during the day (natural light) and at night
(artificial light).

Easy access to the housing unit

 Provide a simple opening system for the entrance door to the housing
The use of keys should be avoided as the elderly can find using keys
difficult because of, say, arthritic or shaking hands. There are many
types of electronic locks to be found on the market which are
operated by swiping a card or tag.
 Provide a CCTV and audio communication system for the entrance
so that people at the front door, the main entrance to the building or
at the external gate can be seen as well as heard from inside.
 Provide electric lighting for the front doors for permanent visibility.

Ensure the best conditions for sleep and rest

 The bedroom wardrobe should have shelves put in at the right height
and clothes hangers [not be lower than 60 cm or higher than 140 cm].
If that is not the case, these can be simply raised or lowered by
operating an electrical system.
 There should be a minimum of two power sockets beside each bed
as well as connections to phone and television.
 A videophone on the nightstand situated next to the bed is also
 Enable light switches to be switched on and off from the bed-side or
easily from the way that the person likes to lie down in bed.
It is better to place the power sockets and the telephone and
television connections both in the bedroom and the living room on
walls opposite each another so that the ideal position of the bed or
furniture can be chosen.

The bathroom
 Provide sufficient lighting in the bathroom (both general and for the
bathroom mirror).

Food preparation
 Provide a kitchen or cooking area large enough to fit a refrigerator/
freezer, a sink, a cooker with a least two burners and an oven.
 Provide the kitchens with cooking and work spaces. These can be

Housing for the elderly—a guide to best practice

electrically height adjustable if required.

 Position a microwave oven so that it is easily accessible.
 All electrical kitchen appliances should be equipped with an indicator
light, which shows that the appliance is switched on.
 Cupboards above the work top should not be placed more than 140
cm from the floor and again electrical systems can raise or lower
them if necessary. Lighting should be installed underneath the
No mention was made in this section of a cooker hood; ideally there
should be a minimum distance above the cooking surface, but if that
is too high for wheelchair users, it is advisable to position the control
switches lower.

Receiving care and treatment

 Choose beds that can easily be equipped with technical aids
(sometimes electrical) in cases where people are more confined to
 Provide wired or wireless aids to operate functions and calls for
assistance remotely.
 Install a system for the future use of telemedicine applications.

Making the house comfortable

 Install the electrical switchboard in a visible place and no more than
140 cm from the floor.
 Install the telephone where the sitting room chairs can be placed
close to it.
 The screen for the videophone should be installed in an easily
accessible and visible place, again no more than 140 cm from the
 Install electrical points and telephone, television and Internet
connections at least 60 cm from the floor to limit the amount of
bending necessary.
 Install switches at a height of 90 to 110 cm from the floor.
 Use switches with indicator lights so that they are also visible in the
 Avoid switches and electrical points in the bathroom as far as
 Install clearly visible thermostats for climate conditioning at a height of
120 to 140 cm from the floor.
 Choose uncomplicated thermostats which are easy to use and have

Home of the Future

sufficient contrast between the reading numbers and their

 Provide a fixed hair drier in the bathroom, close to the mirror.
 Install an alarm cord in the bathroom which can be easily reached in
the event of a fall. The alarm system should be equipped with a reset

Meeting people, socialising

 Provide a closed circuit video system in the building to allow residents
to communicate with each other and, for that matter, with a carer,
from their own home.

The care of plants and flowers

 Where relevant, provide a simple, automatic watering system on the
terrace, operated by an electric valve and a timer.

Recreational activities
 While watching television, a lighting system should be visible which
indicates if someone rings the doorbell.
 Provide a sufficient number of Internet connections.
 Install extra power sockets in those areas where recreational
activities take place.

Cleaning and maintenance

 Lighting appliances should be easy to clean without the use of
ladders or other potential hazards. This also applies to changing light
 Provide, if possible, a central vacuuming system in the home.

 Provide, if possible, a dishwasher, a model that has a few, essential
functions with control buttons right above the door.
 Provide, if possible, space for a washing machine equipped with both
a spin and drying cycle.
 Provide a space for ironing. The iron (or the electrical point) should
have a timer that shuts off the power supply after a given amount of

Housing for the elderly—a guide to best practice

Ensure personal safety

 Install a video system for tele-assistance or a personal alarm system
(PAS), which make it possible to contact carers, relatives or external
service providers.
 Provide an external system so personal alarms can be quickly
followed up by a carer if they were to be set off etc.
 Provide an illuminated doorbell.
 Equip the telephone system with a light indicator, which lights up
when there is an incoming call.
 All alarm and security systems should be equipped with a reset

Ensure safety in the home

 Install a burglar alarm with visual and audio signals connected to an
external alarm service.
 The switchboard should be equipped with automatic fuses.
 Install cooking hobs with electro-magnetic induction burners,
equipped with a cut out timer to prevent fire.
Of course, a home automation system offers more intelligent ways of
dealing with this. A presence detector ―checks‖ if someone is present
in the kitchen during cooking. If, for example, no one is present for
more than 10 or 15 minutes all kitchen appliances which could be a
fire hazard are switched off automatically.
 If gas is used in the home, install a gas leak detector which is
connected to the PAS system.
 Install smoke detectors which are connected to the PAS system.
 Install a water leak detector underneath the sink, washing machine,
dishwasher, etc., which is connected to the PAS system.
 If there are height differences in the floor, or if there are staircases,
install orientation lighting on every step.

Moving around the home easily

 Provide every room with sufficient natural as well as artificial light.
 Equip the switches with indicator lights which illuminate the operating
point at night.

Home of the Future

Even more comfort

 Introduce the possibility of remotely opening the front door, say, from
a chair or from the bed.
 In warm climate countries be sure to install a cooling system.
 Exterior walls with windows facing south can be equipped with sun
screens which automatically roll down activated by bright sunlight and
roll up with too much wind or rain to protect them.
 Equip the circuit board with distinct and easy-to-read labels for every
circuit (refrigerator, lighting, electrical points, living room, etc.).
 Provide a ventilation system which adapts itself to different conditions
- day and night; whether or not there is activity in the kitchen or
bathroom; if anyone is home or not.
 Install switches which can control lighting from multiple locations.

Visual comfort
 Use switch and power socket covers with contrasting colours to the
wall they are installed on. If so desired, a different colour can be
chosen per function (electrical points, switches, telephone
connection, television connection, Internet).
 Ensure all rooms have good artificial lighting for activities such as
reading, writing, watching television, etc.

Roll-down shutters
 Install electrically operated roll-down shutters or curtains.

Communication with the outside world

 Install a videophone, an Internet connection, possibly a video camera
which is connected to a computer. Provide sufficient connections.
 Use a telephone which can be set to be limited to recall frequently
used numbers automatically.

Housing for the elderly—a guide to best practice

3. The communal spaces in the building

Figure 2:
Several examples of communal spaces in the building. (Image source: WelHops)

The next eight series of recommendations refer to ease of use as well as security
and comfort of the so-called common parts of buildings
Easy identification of the entrance to the building
 Ensure the entrance to the building is in a well-lit area, both during
the day and at night (electric lighting).

Home of the Future

Entering the building on foot, by wheelchair or mobility scooter

 Provide an easy system for opening the door.
 The entrance should be equipped with a communication system
linked to the carer, warden or the housing units.

Entering the building by car via the car park

 Access to the car park should be possible using either a remote
control in the car or a monitoring system linked to the carer or
 Garage doors, if present, should be operated by remote control.
 Provide sufficient lighting in the approaches to the car park, in the car
park itself and in the private garages.

Ensure safe surroundings

 The communal spaces should be equipped with an alarm system
which is linked to the carer or, in the case of an apartment block, the
reception desk.
 Install an automatic fire alarm
 Lavatories should be equipped with an alarm system installed 40 cm
from the floor.
 Alarms should be easy to deactivate once the reasons for their
activation has been resolved.
 Install a lift. If this is not possible in the existing buildings, consider a
lift on the outside of the building or install an individual stair lift.
 Use horizontal button panels in the lift rather than vertical panels,
which is easier for wheelchair users.
There is a case for that, of course. But if the building consists of only
a few floors, it seems more logical to us to place the buttons above
one another. After all, the lift itself goes up and down too.
 Make sure that the buttons on the panel in the lift are also in braille.
 When the lift reaches each of the floors an acoustic tone should
 Install an alarm in the lift which sounds and flashes in a room where a
staff member is always on duty [again referring more to apartments or
gated communities].
 Install an audio system in the lift and on every floor which allows
verbal communication with the carer or warden.
 Clearly indicate in the lift which floor has been reached.
 Install a burglar alarm both at the reception desk and the carer’s or

Housing for the elderly—a guide to best practice

warden’s desk.
 Provide illuminated switches.
 Provide lighting on the stairs, possibly connected to a timer.
If the lights suddenly go out while someone is using the stairs, this
can obviously be very dangerous. It is better to connect the stair
lighting to a dimmer switch equipped with a timer. When light is
needed, the corresponding button can be pressed and the lights
immediately turn up to 100% for a given period of time, for example, 7
minutes. After that, the lights slowly dim for 2 minutes before they
switch off. If light is required for longer, the button can be pressed
again. An alternative solution could be to install multiple switches
(push buttons) at intervals up the stairs.

Washing, drying, and ironing

 Install a communal laundry room in the building with sufficient space
for washing machines, driers, a place to hang clean clothes up to dry,
and an area for ironing.

Electrical means of transport

 Provide a parking area for electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
 Provide a charging system for the batteries of electric wheelchairs
and mobility scooters.

Recreational activities
 Provide a room on the ground floor for watching films, using the
computer, Internet, etc.

Ensure environmental comfort

 Ensure permanent sufficient lighting in the communal areas of the
 In warm climate countries, install an air-conditioning system in the
communal areas.

Home of the Future

4. The grounds surrounding the building

Figure 3:
The grounds surrounding the building are also of importance to the quality of life and the
safety inside the building. (Image source: Welhops)

The final section presents series of four recommendations that address issues of
access and security in the surrounds of a home or an apartment block.

Housing for the elderly—a guide to best practice

Entering the grounds on foot, by wheelchair, by electric scooter or

by car
 Install an electric gate in front of the entrance for pedestrians,
wheelchairs, and scooters. The residents should have a remote
control to operate it and an audio signal and flashing lights are set off
when the gate is in motion. The gate must, of course, be equipped
with a safety system ensuring it stops automatically if obstructed in
any way.
 Provide a video phone at the entrance gate, which is connected to the
 Install an automatic gate at the car entrance. Operated remotely from
the reception desk, an audio signal and flashing lights are set off
when the gate is in motion. The gate must, of course, be equipped
with a safety system ensuring it stops automatically if obstructed in
any way.

Parking area for cars, motorcycles, mopeds, and bicycles

 Provide sufficient lighting in the car park and on the path from the car
park to the building.

Ensure personal and environmental safety

 Install a burglar alarm in the grounds.
 Provide an alarm system which, for example, means a resident who
is taken ill in the garden can call for help.
 Ensure there are no dark areas in the grounds.
 Install a lighting system such as to ensure people can be easily
 The lighting intensity should be constant throughout the whole system

Home of the Future

5. Conclusions and considerations

The WelHops recommendations report is an excellent and practical guide which is a
valuable tool for, among others, architects, healthcare agencies, legislators and city
administrators who are concerned with buildings for the elderly and building
contractors who build the accommodation. The complete report can be downloaded
from www.welhops.net.

However, we do have a number of comments.

 We did not find anything in the report about the use of emergency
lighting, which is very important when considering safety issues. Each
country has its own laws regarding mandatory emergency lighting in
the common parts and passage ways of buildings. However, we can
also imagine the safety enhancing function of emergency lighting in
communal, closed-off spaces such as recreational, utility, as well as
in the housing units themselves. Regarding this last point, emergency
lighting in the bathroom and the living room where there may even be
an integrated kitchen unit, as well as the entrance hall comes to mind.
If the lights fail in the bathroom while the resident is taking a shower
or standing on the floor with wet feet, it is advisable to have
emergency lighting to prevent accidents. Equally in the living room,
were there to be a power failure at night, it is all too easy to fall or
bump into obstacles in the dark; searching for a flashlight; moving out
of the room. Searching for a candle as a temporary light source is
even more hazardous as this is a fire waiting to happen. Emergency
lighting in the entrance hall ensures that the resident can easily find
the front door and also seems advisable to us.
 Furthermore, we were unable find anything in the text about the use
and the advantages of an integrated home system. Particularly where
the objective is to enable someone to live at home independently for
longer, such a system will both increase the level of comfort for the
resident and improve safety levels not to mention additional
possibilities for communication. The flexibility of such systems makes
them easy to adapt to a person’s changing needs.

As our population ages so people and government agencies alike are increasingly
having to address accommodation and care issues related to the elderly; these
WelHops guidelines and the work on which the articles are based are intended to
contribute to improving effectively the quality of the lives and services involved.