Enhancing the environment to engage social interactions

By Maggie Brown posted 07-16-2021 02:59 PM


Enhancing the environment to engage social interactions

By Jia Miao

It’s common to acknowledge that disconnectedness between older adults and their social context easily happens when they move into the unfamiliar environment of a long-term care community. Residents struggle with challenges of establishing new connections and potentially reduced amount of meaningful social interactions.

As a salient predictor of health and mental well-being, sufficient social engagement is a crucial component that supports the successful aging of older adults. Thus, optimizing living environments to empower social engagement is a meaningful topic to explore for the senior housing industry, in both research and design fields.

Attracted by the topic and under the encouragement of receiving the Design for Aging Fellowship awarded by AIA, I conducted a study in several long-term care communities in New York upstate in 2019 to explore what environmental factors would facilitate or hinder the occurrences of social interactions. Former studies provided a sound knowledge base as well as some opportunities to bridge gaps. For example, while studies examined that living contexts do have significant impacts on social interactions, but few studies focused on exploring what design interventions or environmental factors would make a difference. Hence, my study aimed to identify important environmental factors that encourage social interactions and therefore inform the future design of aging communities to be more socialization friendly.

To address this gap, my study applied the Participant-Generated Image (PGI) Methods, which are commonly used in the aging research as they facilitate capturing informants from participants’ daily life and activities while participants are with declined cognition or memory capacity. Data was collected in the format of a combination of participant-generated photos (N=149) and interviews content (N=11) with older adults living in assisted-living settings. The deployed methods helped collect both visual and verbal data so researchers can better explore and understand the viewpoints of participants despite possible barriers such as cognition and memory decline.

Synthesized from findings, many expected factors are identified to be impactful such as space quality, ambiance quality, personalization level and so on. There are also some novel findings that were barely indicated in previous studies. For example, interactive items or decorations that residents can manipulate to show their presence were mentioned a lot as stimulators for social interactions. Besides, furniture comfort and safety turned out to be an interesting debate because in the study, participants took photos of a chair with soft armrests and commented: “I don’t find it good as a seat for chatting. It’s very hard for me to stand up from sitting.”

Overall, five main domains of design practices were discussed and recommended as significant environmental supports to facilitate social interactions in my research:

  1. Optimize physical accessibility and space layouts to provide convenience and abundant access.
  2. Enhance home-likeness and ambiance quality to make comfort.
  3. Provide presence of mediums to stimulate communications as well as interactions.
  4. Give residents a sense of privacy, and security.
  5. Make the everyday life various through both environmental design and non-environmental initials approaches.

Jia Miao is an Assistant Professor Faculty Fellow of Sociology at NYU Shanghai. Prior to joining NYU Shanghai, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Miao’ s research centers on how urban life and neighborhoods affect health inequality, productive aging, and subjective well-being in the Asian context

The Design for Aging Fellowship program offers grants to students and young professionals in architecture or aging focused program to increase their awareness of the needs and nature of aging in place.