Australia’s ageing population is about to greatly increase the country’s demand for living infrastructure.
Anyone who knows Baby Boomers knows this generation is not going to go off quietly into old age. Combine that with the fact that Australians are living longer, and it is essential we unlock the benefits of integrating plants and living infrastructure systems into our aged care facilities.
Australians have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and more than 15 per cent of our population is currently aged 65 years or over. This number is projected to rise to over 20 per cent over the next two decades. We don’t like to think about getting older, but our aging population means that an increasing number of us will require the services of aged care facilities in the coming years.
An aging population will also lead to an increase in the number of people living with dementia. An assessment of Australian government-subsidised aged care facilities in 2011 found that more than half the residents were living with some form of dementia. Alzheimer’s Australia projects that in 2017, dementia will cost the Australian community over $14 billion.
With rates of dementia expected to rise with our ageing population, it’s increasingly important to find cost-effective ways to maintain the health of aged care residents.
The addition of plants and green infrastructure can help create a healthy environment in aged care facilities. It’s widely acknowledged that the natural environment has a positive impact on people’s health and happiness. Biophilia is the term used to describe people’s innate desire to connect with nature. It recognises that human beings have a natural longing to be connected with other living things.
Biophilic design is an innovative way to satisfy people’s desire to connect with nature in urban settings. By bringing plants and natural materials into our everyday living spaces, we facilitate a regular connection with the natural environment. There is a large amount of research to prove this.
The positive effects of nature on mental health have been studied extensively. According to Dr Mardie Townsend at Deakin University, contact with nature is associated with a reduction in stress, increased resilience and increased social engagement. This is particularly relevant for people with dementia who commonly suffer from anxiety and agitation and experience higher rates of depression.
With Australia’s population concentrated in its major cities, there is a growing need for aged care facilities in urban areas. Interaction with nature is limited for those with poor health or mobility who spend most of their time indoors. Living infrastructure allows aged care facilities to bring the outdoors inside, making the natural environment easily accessible to all.
Indoor features such as green walls can provide residents with the same mental stimulation and emotional benefits of outdoor gardens without the need to leave the facility. The elevated nature of green walls means that residents can easily access the gardens and be influenced by its positive effects. Bringing plants indoors allows residents with dementia to enjoy the natural environment while eliminating the risk of having them wandering around in unsecured, outdoor locations. Breathing walls take this one step further, not only providing the biophilic benefits of plants but also actively cleaning the air from the chemical soup that exists within our indoor environments.
Research conducted by Dr Fraser Torpy (University of Technology Sydney) demonstrates that indoor plants can significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and organic toxins in the air. Chemical vapours emitted by building materials and furnishings can be mitigated by the introduction of plants, creating a healthier living environment.
Rooftop gardens are another efficient way of incorporating the natural environment into facilities with limited space. Gardens provide areas for residents to enjoy the outdoors and immerse themselves in nature. Gardening allows residents to participate in a familiar and enjoyable pastime, with the additional benefits of promoting physical activity and encouraging social interaction.
Gardens may also be used as an effective therapeutic tool for residents with dementia. A 2014 study by a team at the University of Exeter Medical School found that gardens provide sensory stimulation which can help activate memory and encourage reminiscence in dementia patients.
Most aged care facilities, particularly those in urban areas, do not have the outdoor space to create traditional landscaped gardens and so must find creative alternatives to provide residents with green spaces. Design features such as green walls, breathing walls, green facades and green roofs can be incorporated into existing facilities and do not require additional floor space.
With the increasing demand for aged care, it is essential that facilities are designed to optimise residents’ physical and emotional well-being. The addition of living infrastructure not only looks appealing, but has direct benefits for the physical and mental health of residents. And healthy, happy residents mean fewer health care costs for the community.