Colour in the environment for older adults

Monika Hencová, Veronika Kotradyová

Cite this article
Hencová, M. Kotradyová, V. (2023) ‘Colour in the environment for older adults’, Architecture Papers of the Faculty of Architecture and Design STU, 28(4), pp. 15-23.



A large part of public and residential interiors is not designed for or adapted to the needs of older people. The trend of aging population is a demographic phenomenon, but its consequences affect the entire society. One of the priorities of the modern society is to address the issue of social integration of people with disabilities. Many professional articles and publications have been published, which have led to the development of guides and documents related to barrier-free accessibility. It should be a new standard to level the visiting opportunities for all types of people. Accessibility is an essential part of new buildings, but also of the renovation of older architecture. It is not only people with health, hearing, visual, or other disabilities who encounter problems in the public environment, but social inclusion also concerns other vulnerable groups of the population – children, mothers with strollers, neglected people, and older adults. The vision is to improve the quality of life without discrimination. In designing, the diversity of people, their needs, and constraints must be considered so that all users feel equal and have the same opportunities to be an active part of the community. Approaches to designing environments that address the diversity of people’s needs and requirements are called human-centred design, which encompasses universal design, design for all, inclusive design, user-friendly design, design for all ages, and accessible design. Living in your own home for as long as possible is one of the most important requirements of aging people. Their desire is to be as self-sufficient as possible. The living space for older adults with mobility impairments needs to be adapted to allow sufficient room to manoeuvre and change directions. Their greatest need is for safety, functionality, and comfort.

As we age, our visual perception changes, but so does our sensitivity to certain colours. Age-related changes in vision occur in all layers of the eye and can have different effects. First of all, the change in vision is caused by the tissues of the eyelids and the muscles around the eyes becoming flaccid. The biggest changes affect the lens of the eye, which hardens, thickens, and becomes less flexible. Changes to the lens allow less light to enter the eye and make it harder to recognize the environment a person is in. The most common problems associated with vision loss are loss of central vision, which allows us to see fine details and colours, blurring of the eye, reduced sensitivity to contrast, reduced ability to see in low light or at night, difficulty seeing objects up close, loss of normal vision, and also increased sensitivity to glare.

Whether it is adapting existing rooms in the home or designing a public service space, colour plays an important role in the space. When used purposefully, colour is a powerful tool that can not only enhance design aesthetics but also greatly help older adults feel independent and safe. Elements that can compromise our safety should be designed in contrasting colours. Moving through space is a multisensory experience. People use most of their senses such as sight, hearing, smell, and touch in addition to moving their bodies. Disorientation and unfamiliarity with the environment can increase fear in people and have a negative impact on their overall well-being. Flooring in areas designed for older adults should be designed in contrast to the walls and should be complemented with relief features such as artificial guidelines of different textures and colours. Older adults may be disoriented or feel unsafe if the space blends before their eyes and they cannot determine where they are walking. Alternating the colours of floor coverings, marking the purpose of rooms with embossed signs, or other wayfinding signs are helpful in supporting older adults‘ orientation. In circulation areas, there should be no obstacles on the ground that restrict the movement and safety of older adults. Safe floors should be solid, uniform, and protected against abrasion and slipping. The choice of solid floor coverings or tiles that do not shimmer is appropriate so as not to impair spatial orientation. If a carpet is used, it is advisable that it is low pile and passable by wheels. Carpeted floors have several major advantages. Carpets transmit fewer pathogens to the hands than vinyl or rubber floors, and some serious pathogens survive for a shorter time. They reduce noise and glare, make walking easier, reduce the likelihood of falls and subsequent injuries, and prolong visits with family and friends (increasing social support).

The colour scheme of the individual zones in the apartment can be a good aid to spatial orientation. Furniture elements or doors, for example, should have a contrasting colour to the wall on which they are mounted. Contrasting or different colours should also be used for elements or objects that may pose a safety risk to users. Warm and pleasant to the touch colours are preferred for furnishings. The monotony and lack of sensory stimuli in interiors can hinder users’ orientation as they lack the visual cues needed to identify architectural elements. Colour contrasts in interiors need not be limited to walls and floors; the contrast between stair arms and walls, and colour highlighting of important points and zones is also appropriate. Aging eyes lose the ability to distinguish bright colours, making yellows and other pastel colours appear white. Shades of blue, green, and purple are classed as cool colours and can be seen as grey. People with colour deficiency are best able to perceive bright colours at the warm end of the spectrum, such as red and orange.

Colour can significantly help with orientation in space, but it is the architect who addresses the core principles. Spaces for the elderly should be organized, clear, and allow natural movement. Orientation in space is also closely related to the navigation system integrated in it. A wayfinding system in spaces for older adults helps with spatial orientation and navigation. A good navigation system is clear, understandable, intuitive, and non-verbal. Many studies can now be found that examine the impact of physical elements on well-being in health care settings for older adults, but few are concerned with colour. These homes often have neutral to hospital-style facilities. Instead of institutional aesthetics, one should begin to think about adding more of a sense of home, and colour may be one of the most useful elements for this purpose. In addition, colour can be used to emphasize the difference between rooms designed for relaxation and those designed for activities.

Keywords: older adults, colours, interior, furniture, social inclusion, health