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Designing international aged care environments

January 30, 2013
by Jeffrey Anderzhon, FAIA
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The world’s population is aging rapidly in both the developed and developing countries. Most of these societies have undertaken the obligation of providing care for their elders and the environments in which that care can be given, either through private sponsors or with government-funded financial assistance. Combined with the recent economic recession, designers have looked beyond the borders of the United States for opportunities, particularly in the Pacific Rim countries. The exportation of both Western models of care environments and care programs has become significant.

But are Western models of care and environments appropriate in a Pacific Rim country or, for that matter, anywhere else? While this veneration for our architecture and our care is commendable, it may not be fully deserved as cultural and socioeconomic intricacies of the residents for whom it is intended may be ignored. If we accept this admiration for our design and program talents, we must also accept the responsibility to provide unassailable quality of both environment and care as we export these to foreign shores.

While the United States is a melting pot of cultures, other countries are more homogenous in both culture and general attitude toward aged care. American designers and care providers cannot simply utilize that which we have found successful in this country, transport it to another and expect it to be either a sustainable aged care community or to even meet the physical and social needs of those for whom it is intended. To achieve success elsewhere we must fully understand how to accomplish the integration of environment and program within a template of local custom, culture and lifestyle. One path to this goal is the study of successful aged care communities elsewhere in the world, learning from their successes and interpreting those efficacies in our own design approaches.



Located in the remote “outback” center of Australia, Tjilpi Pampaku Ngura is a small aged care community, fully funded by the Australian government. Created in 2000 specifically for an Aboriginal population used to living off the land, the community houses just 16 residents. The design has an integral and direct connection to the outdoors in deference to the residents’ culture. Intended simply for short residential stays when the Aboriginal elder requires some respite assistance until he or she can return to the “land,” the design is simple and uses building materials that are either readily available or that are easily transported to the job site and that are durable under the harsh local weather conditions.

Each of four separate houses accommodates four residents and provides modest sleeping rooms and bathrooms. The houses surround a central community space where meals are served and social activities take place. Residents are free to come and go as their spirit moves them. The most popular structure on the small campus is the “wiltja,” or shade structure, where residents can sleep close to the land as is their custom. 

In the end, the designers and care providers discovered that the buildings were not nearly as important as the cultural and spiritual significance of their location and its relationship to the land. In addition, Tjilpi Pampaku Ngura has enabled aged Aborigines in the surrounding area to remain connected to their traditions and culture.



Located just outside of Manchester, England, Belong Wigan was built in an economically depressed area predominately populated by blue-collar factory workers. The surrounding community has had few optimistic economic prospects, particularly in the recent worldwide recession. Residents have seen local businesses close, population leave and their community fabric begin to fray. One victim of the recent economic recession was the last privately operated restaurant in town, which closed its doors. It was a natural gathering place for residents of the community and a foundational element in the social activity of the community.

Campus residents socialize with Wigan residents at the cafe bistro.The sponsor and designer had the opportunity to provide not only a much-needed new series of affordable apartments and sheltered care for the aged, but also a new center for community activity that includes a bistro-type café open to the public. This solution points to a deep understanding of  cultural and community relationships as well as an understanding of community organization.

By replacing a lost community “asset,” Belong Wigan strengthens the community, reinforces the local culture and, as a result, enhances its own position. The additional community benefit, resulting from creating new housing and care stock, has kept people in the community. The end result is that the wildly popular café attracts residents from both the campus and the town, brings them together in a way which had been lost and provides a rediscovered sense of pride for Wigan and its future.