Designing for Lifelong Learning Opportunities

Are there similarities in the design of spaces for education and for senior living? Specific areas where the two intersect include creating spaces that foster lifelong learning, help people build communities and foster relationships, and combat the stigma of being either young or old.

When designing for educational settings, architects and interior designers often reflect on the needs of students. We think about the student experience and how the various learning spaces on a campus support interaction with instructors and collaboration with peers.

Yet, learning spaces are not just limited to classrooms. They can take a variety of forms, including found study space in a residence hall, collaboration space in a student center, or even outdoor campus space. 

At first, it seems unlikely that there would be any overlap between architectural design for education spaces and older adult communities. Buildings designed for older adults are inherently different from those designed for college students, right? Yet, design strategies for both types of building environments are constantly evolving along similar lines. These practice areas are not as dissimilar as we may think.

There are a few reasons for this. The move towards lifelong learning is a trend in higher education that supports a much greater age diversity in the student population. Inclusivity is another parallel, in that universal design is an important part of campus space design, intended to support students regardless of their physical limitations.

Flexibility is another goal for many education spaces, to support a variety of pedagogies. This flexibility allows instructors to deliver instructional content outside the classroom — usually online — using the time spent in the classroom for more active, collaborative work guided and supported by the instructor. With greater diversity, inclusivity, and more collaborative pedagogy, students are more engaged with and in charge of their own learning pathways.

The same might be said of older adult design, where universal design elements are elevating not only the function, but also the look and feel of communities intended as residences for older adults. These communities are changing, not only to accommodate different acuity levels, such as independent living, assisted living and memory care environments, but also as a way of introducing spaces intended to foster socialization and activities. These spaces can also support lifelong learning, such as with a demonstration kitchen or rooms supportive of lectures or other educational programming.

With this in mind, OZ Architecture decided to explore what opportunities for intersection there were between older adult design and education design. While continued exploration on this topic is warranted, we’ve identified three primary themes that represent overlapping design values of student populations and older adult communities: designing for communities, bridging differences, and fostering lifelong learning.

Designing for Community

One of the reasons for combining design thinking from education and older adult communities is to combat loneliness and foster community. A 2016 New York Times article cited loneliness as a “growing epidemic,” drawing on evidence that being lonely can disturb our sleep, cause abnormal immune responses, and even trigger cognitive decline. Another study followed over three million people and suggested that loneliness peaks first in teenagers and young adults, and then again in the oldest individuals. Young people and old people are more alike than we think—and, unfortunately, they’re both at risk of feeling isolated.

By creating spaces that encourage community, we can support the users of our spaces. Student persistence and success rates are greatest for students who have a sense of belonging and are part of a larger community. Similarly, a sense of community and belonging can have a profound impact on the health and quality of life of an older adult.

To support the creation of community, it is important to capitalize on common spaces such as stairways, elevator lobbies, and even corridors, designing them to encourage chance encounters and promote interaction.

Another strategy is to design the common destination amenities such as laundry rooms, common kitchens, and game rooms to attract and encourage community engagement. Indoors, this might look like visible, common student study areas in a residence hall, or similar common areas in older adult communities for reading the morning paper or drinking a cup of coffee and being seen by a neighbor. If thoughtfully crafted, the outdoor space between buildings can also create valuable space that supports the community.

lifelong learning

Designing these types of flexible community spaces encourages gathering together, no matter the age, and could feasibly work for multiple age groups in a single space—such as an older adult community with public space open to nearby college students, or a college with a Zen garden with time for quiet reflection and community events such as tai chi or group meditation. Of course, merging common space for older adults and younger students would need to be carefully crafted in order to be successful.

Bridging Differences

At certain ages, it can be difficult to connect outside of one’s age group. In an education setting and in older adult communities we are often surrounded by others of a similar age. With a lack of direct connection to others of different ages, it is possible for stigmas and opinions to be created.

Design can work to build bridges across different user groups and generations by creating spaces everyone can use, regardless of age or ability. For example, education design is moving towards a more student-collaborative pedagogy and away from lecture-style learning. This is represented by a move toward level-floor classrooms with movable furniture, partitions, and dry erase boards or digital screens for flexibility and ease of collaboration in the learning environment. As a result, many newer spaces easily allow someone in a wheelchair to roll up next to someone in a traditional seat and work together around the same workspace. This flexibility and usability makes the environment significantly more navigable by someone with physical or mobility challenges, regardless of age.

Thoughtful housing options can also foster integration. In some cases, designing older adult housing adjacent to student housing on campus, with shared amenities between, could allow people of different ages to intermingle at their discretion and in different environments.

As another example, student housing intended for specific areas of study such as nursing or gerontology could be attached to older adult housing as a way for students to interact daily with residents in a non-learning environment. Designated spaces in older adult housing design, such as exam rooms, can bring these groups into the same space without sacrificing privacy.

This works especially well if common “everyday” spaces can be programmed to be both learning spaces and community spaces. For example, the same space might be designed in a way that it can hold a knitting class in the morning and a wine tasting mixer in the afternoon, with participant overlap encouraged.

Promoting Lifelong Learning

The motivation to learn new things thrives across generations. Many older adults are driven to return to an educational setting later in life, to get that degree they’ve been wanting or simply learn to a new skill. Universities and colleges are also adapting non-credit classes and audit programs for lifelong learners to engage while minimizing or eliminating homework and exams. This encourages older adults to truly immerse themselves in lifelong learning.

Designing integrated, mixed-use buildings could also create learning opportunities, such as including a public library in a 55+ community. Designing a college’s makerspace near an older adult community might allow retired professionals to tutor students and impart trade or craft knowledge. Younger students might adapt their social skills by teaching older adults about updates to technology. These interactions may even open doors for older adults and young students to work side-by-side on new products or technologies for aging populations.

We’re reminded of Henry Ford’s words: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Humans do well when we keep learning, no matter our age. By shifting our own thinking as to which types of spaces belong to which age groups, we can bridge generations in meaningful ways and with meaningful, intentional spaces.