The coming “silver tsunami” of elderly patients requiring healthcare services is well documented. And while medical professionals are working on the front end to improve wellness and preventive care, architects and designers of healthcare spaces are charged with doing what they can to accommodate the current swell of elderly patients using those facilities.

In their 2012 HEALTHCARE DESIGN Conference session titled “Elder-Friendly Healthcare Environments,” Joyce Polhamus, vice president, and Alexis Denton, architect, for SmithGroupJJR offered plenty of statistics to support the need for more senior-centric design and architectural elements. Twenty percent of those 75 or older experience 10 or more healthcare visits per year to manage chronic illnesses; 60 percent have 5 visits or more. And the growing population of the “oldest old”—those aged 85 and up—is affecting both acute and ambulatory care facilities, which means that everyone needs to keep in mind design elements that may cause problems for those with physical, sensory, and cognitive challenges.

Beyond the statistics, though, the presenters put a personal spin on the numbers when Denton shared video clips of her 94-year-old grandfather as he arrived for a routine doctor’s appointment, navigated the office, and left for home. Her grandfather uses a cane and a walker, has significant hearing loss, but has no major cognitive issues. Denton’s mother accompanied him on the visit—as is the case for many older patients, which raises issues of accommodating these caregivers within the healthcare space, as well.

The videos put a human face on challenges common for many elders, including difficulty in moving from bright light (outside) to low light (right inside the facility), distinguishing where the wall meets the floor in rooms that don’t provide high contrast color differentiation, and lack of clearance near doorways to accommodate assistance devices like walkers.