How to design care settings for people with sensory impairments 

The world’s older population is growing fast. The number of people aged over 60 is expected to double by 2050, reaching nearly 2.1 billion. While the 80 plus population is projected to increase more than threefold, rising from 137 million in 2017 to 425 million in 2050. But as life expectancy increases, so does the number of people affected by age-related sensory impairments. According to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, more than 90% of older adults will have a deficit in at least one of their five senses. Hearing and vision are the two senses that are most commonly affected as we age.

Having an impaired sense could prevent someone from participating in social activities, or performing the most basic tasks. With this in mind, the Sodexo Institute for Quality of Life set out to study the impacts of sensory deficiency to ensure we provide services and settings that make a real and lasting difference for residents around the world. The study, carried out in partnership with the University of Ottawa’s Life Research Institute, looked at how places could be designed or adapted to be more ‘sense-sensitive’. 

The resulting report, ‘How and Why the Five Sense Matter for Quality of Life: A Guide for Long-Term Care Communities’, inspires new thinking and offers a guide for care providers, management teams, residents and their families. It flags up simple changes as well as technological innovations that can be used in care settings or at home to mitigate the impact of sensory decline, such as:

  • using high-contrast colours to help people with poor vision see better, allowing them to navigate corridors and see all of the food on their plates
  • reducing background noise from heating and cooling systems, equipment and cleaning services to make it easier for people with hearing problems to engage in conversation
  • enhancing flavours in meals to make eating more pleasurable for those with a diminished sense of taste, and creating open kitchen areas where smells can stimulate appetite
  • using robotic technology such as pet-like animals to encourage sensory interactions that reduce stress and create social connections. 

Our work on this topic continues as we intend to raise the level of care for older people at home and in long-term care communities.  By creating sense-sensitive environments, we improve quality of life for people around the world.