“Baby boomers are rapidly approaching senior citizenry. Without more empathetic designers for retirement living, our elders, worldwide, could find themselves marginalized, in non-adaptive communities.” Sarah Recken, architecture
PULLMAN, Wash.–The United States is preparing to meet the needs of an aging population. So is Japan, found Sarah Recken, Washington State University architecture professor who just returned from a five-week consultation in Tokyo.
The Japanese face similar life changes to Americans, in that people no longer can expect to work a lifetime for one company. Many husbands and wives work outside the home, so no longer can many elders rely on their children for care.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare, as many as 17 percent of the Japanese will be over age 65 by the year 2000, and more than 25 percent will be over 65 by 2020.
Both Recken and her University of Washington architecture professor husband, Robert Sasanoff, were enthusiastically welcomed as lecturers and consultants at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan’s Housing and Urban Development Corporation, and at insurance and social service agencies.
The pair most often was asked to speak about the use of universal design for senior housing. Universal design frees and supports people to achieve their full potential, and provides accommodation for all people, regardless of age or ability. Environments are designed for the greatest range of functional abilities, rather than for physical disabilities — in other words, all levels of vision, hearing, mobility, social and cognitive abilities, to name a few.
At the Building Technology Research Center in Yokohama, Recken saw the effort to bridge building technology and cultural tradition. For example, traditionally the tatami room, bathroom and the entry were raised one step, but now the pattern is changing for the convenience of the population with impaired mobility. The center’s research, similar to the U.S., also addresses preservation and support of the environment.
Japan and the U.S. are beginning to coordinate scientific research with humanistic concerns for elderly populations, noted Recken.
In “Life Worth Living,” by W.H. Thomas, nursing homes change the health of patients by a change in the attitude of the care giver, and soften the institutional environment with plants, pets and a child care program.
“We can benefit by incorporating living environments for the elderly with ideas from WSU’s Leo Bustad’s People Pet Partnerships and WSU’s Virginia Lohr’s people and plant environments,” said Recken. “We also must provide adaptable residential designs to serve people as they become frail.”
The intercultural experience injected Recken with a sense of urgency to instill in today’s student architects and planners a greater sensitivity to the special needs of clients. Already, she provides students experiences for building empathy for “differences.” Her second-year architecture students last term took turns navigating the campus and its environs in a wheel chair.
The entry hall to the design studio now is well nicked from narrow turns, and several students still have palm blister scars from hand-breaking on hills. Students said the experience was humbling, limiting and frustrating.
Small things became huge impediments from a wheelchair, said the group, such as library security entrances with bars that have to be held to pass through, wet ramps that became too slick, and having to ride elevators backwards for lack of turning space.
“There’s no way to imagine the difficulties without experiencing them,” said one of the students. “Considering the number of differences in physical and cognitive ability that affect the way we use our environment, we have a genuine challenge.”
Recken directs students in the creation of variations to moving stairways near community activities, to relieve physical isolation and improve access. “I think we also must stretch our creativity to design spaces that provide adequate mental and physical stimulation for all, lest the baby boomers face threats of inertia, deterioration and warehousing in nursing homes.”

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Recken may be reached at 509/335-7039, recken@wsu.edu