The word “retirement” used to mean stepping back from one’s previous life. Abandoning work in the city and moving to the peace of the countryside, giving up large family homes for a manageable garden, retreating to a suburban gated community. Retirement also used to come with its own distinct form of architecture – the low, sprawling rest home with its dormitory-like corridors haunted by boiled peas past, the brick unit or villa in its own complex, moated by gardens to keep it separate from the rest of the world. Within the past decade, however, a quiet design revolution has been bringing the gates down and turning up the modern emphasis on individual choice, promising to transform the very definition of retirement.

Many “retirement villages” are now being renamed “lifestyle villages”, busting the stereotype of the quiet segregated community. Design firms instead focus on creating amenities that provide stimulation and engagement with society, so even those unable to leave their rooms for periods of time can feel part of the lively community through their window. Think spas, yoga rooms and gyms, with public facilities like petting zoos, childcare centres, hairdressers and cafes open to all comers. Twenty or even 10 years ago, a visit to any facility like this would mean a trip into town. Now many baby boomers are reluctant to give up the conveniences they’ve acquired over the years, let alone their active lifestyles, and the town is coming to them.

The other crucial trend of the aged care facilities of the future is their verticality. As apartment living gains increasing acceptance in New Zealand, so too retirees are embracing the convenience of living in developments four to seven storeys tall, with minimal maintenance required. Outwardly, there’s little to distinguish the new breed of aged care facilities from any other type of apartment. Witness Killarney Residences in the Auckland suburb of Takapuna (main image). Directly fronting on to the road among suburban houses and apartments with garage doors for internal parking and views across the neighbouring park, Lake Pupuke and harbour, it might be another luxury development for well-heeled North Shore residents, with a café on the ground floor and a hair and nail salon.

Killarney’s interior also demonstrates another step-change in aged care design. New Zealand is among the world leaders in the concept of “ageing in place”. In previous decades couples would be split up once one of them required a higher level of care, with one partner remaining in semi-independent living while the other moved into the hospital. At Killarney and other new developments the old progressive model from villa to assisted living is being replaced by a more flexible approach. Designers create homes that can be easily adapted to aids such as handrails or tiled showers and which are wheelchair friendly. Reducing disruption and distress caused is key. The traditional hospital-style nurse station is gone and staff come to visit residents in their apartments just like any private home, increasing the sense of comfort. In Australia, the concept of ageing in place is set to revolutionise living options for its growing retiree population.

As the emphasis on facilities that encourage community engagement and physical activity shows, the importance of design in mental health is now recognised in a way it wasn’t just two decades ago. For decades, care homes would consist of lots of rooms surrounding a single and impersonal communal lounge. In just the past two years developments have begun to split aged care facilities into clusters of “households” containing eight to 12 rooms and their own social spaces, kitchens and other amenities. These households give a sense of being in a real home, in a digestible group of people who can provide society without that mass institutional feel. For residents with dementia, clever design cues like contrasting colours or subtly different carpet patterns help them find their way around and recognise different areas without signs that can often confuse.

Technology can also help designers cater for people with various disabilities such as vision impairment or mobility issues. Virtual reality headsets have already been used to simulate macular degeneration or glaucoma, for example, so designers can see for themselves where seemingly ordinary design features turn into hazards. Black patterns on the floor can easily appear as black holes for those with visual difficulties. Soon Ignite plans to experiment with using virtual reality headsets to show designers how the world looks from a wheelchair, allowing them to further tailor facilities to specific needs. The headsets will also be used as a sales tool to allow prospective buyers at The Country Club, Huapai (pictured below) in northwest Auckland to “walk through” the development before a spadeful of sod has been turned, transforming the old paper prospectus into an actual experience. Buying off-plan can be daunting at any age, but with virtual reality there’s no need to imagine a drawing in three dimensions.

The future of retirement living in New Zealand will be further blurring of the line between aged care facilities and the wider world. Increasingly the quiet brick and tile villages of the 80s and 90s will be complemented by multi-storey, mixed-use developments right at the heart of their neighbourhoods, offering community amenities to bring the world inside. Couples will be allowed to age together in their own homes or apartments, while communal living will be downsized to a human level in the interests of mental health and comfort. The result is that retirement will no longer mean stepping away from the hustle and bustle. Unless, of course, that’s what you choose.

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